Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 23 Mar 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: We cannot investigate Ms M’s complaint about her legal costs as the events are now too old. There are no reasons to justify disapplying the late complaint rule.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Ms M, says the Council failed to reimburse her legal costs.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- it is unlikely we would find fault, or
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended).
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information Ms M provided with her complaint and the Council’s replies which it provided. Mrs M commented on a draft version of this decision.
What I found
- In June 2014, Ms M had contact with the Council’s children services team because she says she was the victim of domestic violence. Ms M says a Council officer told her that she must contact a solicitor. She says the officer gave her details of a solicitor.
- Ms M says she employed the solicitor and incurred a legal aid bill. She says the Council officer told her they would sort it out. She says this has not happened and she now has the bill to pay.
- Ms M complained to the Council in June 2017. The Council gave her a full account of what its records showed had happened. This included in August 2015 an officer contacting the legal aid body and getting the bill reduced. It says its officers gave Ms M the chance to formally complain in September 2014 and July 2015, and in 2016, but she did not do so. It says
“Discussion of cost is not recorded and we do not accept financial liability for arrangements that individual clients enter into. If you feel that you were misled or inadequately informed by the solicitor that is a matter to take up with them”.
- Ms M has known for two and half years that the bill had been incurred. This means her complaint is late. Ms M says she did not know there was a time limit to submit complaints. We can only investigate late complaints if there are good reasons to do so. Here it is my view there are not because:
- Since July 2015 the Council prompted Ms M three times to formally complain and she did not do so.
- There is little prospect of us being able to practically robustly investigate Ms M’s complaint as it depends largely on the uncorroborated word of one person against another.
- It is unlikely we would find the Council were responsible for Ms M’s legal costs. Her agreement with her solicitor was private and not one which involved the Council. And Ms M had no written agreement the Council would cover her costs.
- If Ms M believes she incurred legal costs unnecessarily this is a matter between her and her solicitor.
- We cannot investigate this complaint. This is because the complaint is about an event known to Ms M for more than 12 months and there are no good reasons to disapply the late complaint rule.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman