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Derbyshire County Council (20 013 052)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 09 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman found no fault by the Council on Ms F’s complaint about an officer inappropriately communicating with her former partner’s wife about issues subject to ongoing private court proceedings to which neither were parties. We are not satisfied the evidence justifies a finding of fault in these circumstances.

The complaint

  1. Ms F complains a social worker inappropriately communicated with her former partner’s new wife about confidential matters which were subject to ongoing private court proceedings to which neither were parties; as a result, this caused her a great deal of distress and caused her to lose trust and confidence in the Council.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
  2. 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’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered all the information provided by Ms F, the notes I made of our telephone conversation, and the Council’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent her. I did not send her a complete copy because some of it contains information about third parties which needs to remain confidential. This means I am unable to refer to it directly. I sent a copy of my draft decision to Ms F and the Council. I considered the Council’s response.

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What I found

  1. Ms F lives with her young daughter, G, and partner. G’s father is Mr H. While private court proceedings between Ms F and Mr H about their daughter were ongoing, Ms F saw an email and document sent from a Council officer, who she believed was a social worker, to Mr H’s new wife. The officer was not employed by the Council as a social worker. She was employed in another capacity within Children’s Services.
  2. The officer prepared a document titled, ‘Information for Guardian’. It was a statement drafted on behalf of Mr H and contained details of his concerns about G’s care and the behaviour of Ms F. The statement was sent from the officer’s Council work email address. It said, ‘Please see attached, hope it’s OK-you could always ask if you can email it to guardian as well’. The email address contains the officer’s name followed by ‘[Childrens Services]’. I was sent a copy of both the email and statement from the Council and Ms F.
  3. Understandably, Ms F was concerned about the apparent assistance from Children’s Services to Mr H’s wife, neither of whom were parties to the private court proceedings. She complained to the Council about the officer’s actions and the obtaining, and use, of personal information.
  4. In its response, the Council assured her no information was obtained from its recording systems and no personal information about her, or G, was inappropriately accessed by the officer. The Council confirmed it has not shared any of its data with a third party.
  5. In response to my enquiries, the Council confirmed what Ms F already knew: that the officer and Mr H’s wife were friends. The officer received the information from Mr H and his wife. She did not access information from any Council system or its staff when preparing the statement. The officer prepared it to support her friends gather information in one document. It was not prepared in a professional capacity.
  6. While the officer received the personal information from her friend, she typed it up using her work laptop. The Council confirmed it was not involved in the private legal proceedings between Ms F and Mr H. Nor did it have any prior involvement with Ms F or G.
  7. The Council sent me the notes of a management internal discussion following talking to the officer about Ms F’s complaint.
  8. Under the Council’s Code of Conduct for employees (July 2020), staff must, whilst at work, ‘Not do anything as an employee that may discredit the Council’. It also states, ‘You must not use Council facilities, equipment, or vehicles for your own personal use unless you have been given advance approval’.

Analysis

  1. I found no fault on this complaint and in reaching this conclusion, I took the following into account:
      1. The officer, Mr H, and his wife, were friends.
      2. Although I have not seen evidence of the officer receiving the personal information from Mr H and his wife to gather in to a statement, on balance, I am satisfied the information was sent and not obtained from the Council’s own records. I say this because both the Council and Ms F confirmed there was no involvement in the private legal proceedings by the Council and nor had it any prior involvement with her or her daughter.
      3. Again, although I have not seen evidence of the original request from either Mr H or his wife for the officer to prepare this statement, on balance, I am satisfied it was more likely than not to have been made.
      4. The officer prepared, and stored, the statement on a work lap top.
      5. The officer sent Mr H’s wife the statement from a work lap top, using a Council employee email address, during work time.
      6. The officer was not acting on behalf of the Council when she prepared the document and sent it. What she did was not within her role. Nor was there any formal involvement by the Council with Ms F, G, or the court proceedings.
      7. When alerted to the complaint, the Council acted on it and investigated it. I am unable to say what it did as a result for reasons of confidentiality. I am satisfied it took the complaint about the officer’s actions seriously.
      8. To conclude, the officer was not a social worker, did not use any information held by the Council, did not use it in an official capacity, her actions were not approved by the Council, and the sending of the statement using the officer’s work email address was simply a mistake. I am not satisfied this is enough to justify a finding of fault against the Council.

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Final decision

  1. I found no fault on Ms F’s complaint against the Council.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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