The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X is unhappy with the Council’s responses to her complaints about contact with her children. The Ombudsman has discontinued the investigation. This is because the Council has not yet had the opportunity to investigate and respond.
- Miss X is unhappy with the Council’s responses at stage 1 of the statutory children’s complaints procedure. She says the Council is not arranging contact in accordance with a court order and this is affecting her and her children. And, she has recently experienced difficulties in arranging contact again.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint unless we are satisfied the council knows about the complaint and has had an opportunity to investigate and reply. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to notify the council of the complaint and give it an opportunity to investigate and reply (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(5))
- We can decide whether to start or discontinue an investigation into a complaint within our jurisdiction. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 24A(6) and 34B(8), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Miss X and considered her complaint. I reviewed documents provided by Miss X and the Council. I gave the Council and Miss X the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision and I considered the comments provided.
What I found
- Complaints made by or on behalf of children about council services must follow a three stage statutory complaints procedure: local resolution, investigation and review panel.
- Government guidance “Getting the best from complaints” makes clear that councils can only vary from the statutory complaints procedure in exceptional circumstances.
- A council should provide a stage 1 response within 10 working days of receiving a complaint, though this can be extended with a complainant’s agreement. Where the matter is not resolved the complainant has the right to request consideration of the complaint at stage 2.
- Stage 2 begins once the complainant requests it. However, if the complainant amends the written record of their complaint the stage 2 timescale starts from the date the complaint is finalised. The council should provide a stage 2 response within 25 working days of receiving a request to go to stage 2. However, where this is not possible stage 2 can be extended to a maximum of 65 days.
- If a person remains unhappy they can ask for a panel review at stage 3. The panel should meet within 30 working days of the request for a review and provide its report within 5 working days of the meeting.
- The council should then consider the report and provide its response within 15 days of receipt.
- A council can make an early referral to the Ombudsman in certain circumstances.
- The Ombudsman will generally expect the following to have happened at stage 2 before accepting an early referral:
- a robust stage 2 report;
- a complete adjudication; and
- an outcome where all significant complaints have been upheld and the Council has a clear action plan or has agreed to meet the majority of the complainant’s desired outcomes.
- The Council publishes its policy for dealing with complaints about children’s services on its website. This sets out a three stage procedure in line with the statutory procedure above.
- In October 2017 Miss X complained to the Council about the outcome of care proceedings and the arrangements for contact with her children. She said the Council had refused to arrange contact at the evening and weekends to enable her to get to work. And, it had not reviewed contact arrangements as required by a court order.
- The Council provided a stage 1 response in November 2017. It said it was difficult to make arrangements to suit everyone and it had carried out Child in Care reviews.
- On 9 January 2018 the Council received a further complaint from Miss X. I note Miss X raised new issues concerning the care of her children. She also repeated the Council had not carried out reviews and she wanted weekend contact with her children.
- The Council noted some of the issues raised were new and explained it would look at the entire complaint at stage 1.
- On 6 February 2018 the Council provided its stage 1 response. It said it had not breached the court order and it had reviewed contact arrangements. These could be further discussed at Child in Care reviews.
- Miss X told the Council she just wanted to see her children at the weekend and it had not reviewed whether she was still a risk in order to consider unsupervised contact.
- The Council told Miss X she could present her views at a Child in Care review or contact the Ombudsman.
- In May 2018 Miss X raised a new complaint with the Council. She said she had now been given contact at the weekend but the Council had failed to give her adequate notice of the arrangements.
- In June 2018 the Council provided it stage 1 response. It accepted fault, apologised and outlined the actions it would take to prevent recurrence.
- In October 2018 Miss X contacted the Ombudsman because she was again experiencing difficulties in arranging contact with her children. When I spoke to Miss X she said she was unhappy with the Council’s previous responses to her complaints.
- There is a three stage statutory complaints procedure that councils should follow.
- Miss X is unhappy with the Council’s stage 1 responses to her complaints, but she has not yet asked the Council to go to stage 2. She has also not yet complained to the Council about recent issues. As this has now been brought to the Council’s attention I would expect it to consider Miss X’s complaints and her request to go to stage 2.
- It is reasonable to allow the Council the opportunity to respond to Miss X. If Miss X remains unhappy after following the three stage statutory procedure, she may complain to the Ombudsman.
- I have discontinued my investigation. This is because the Council has not yet had the opportunity to investigate and respond.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman