Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 08 Nov 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complained the Council did not do enough to prevent anti-social behaviour from her neighbours over the last several years. There was no fault in how the Council investigated Miss X’s reports about noise nuisance or harassment since April 2020. However, there was fault in how the Council dealt with emails sent to absent staff and how it failed to provide information about the anti-social behaviour case review process. The Council agreed to apologise to Miss X, pay her a financial remedy and process an anti-social behaviour case review application from her. It also agreed to review its procedures.
- Miss X complains the Council has not done enough to prevent anti-social behaviour from her neighbours over the last several years. She says the Council failed to:
- keep her complaint confidential;
- properly investigate her complaints of harassment, instead of focusing only on noise problems;
- consider all legal options available to it;
- coordinate action with the police;
- take suitable action to prevent the harassment; and
- tell her about or complete an anti-social behaviour case review.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated how the Council responded to Miss X’s reports of anti-social behaviour and noise nuisance since April 2020.
- The final section of this statement contains my reasons for not investigating the rest of the complaint.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered:
- the information Miss X provided and discussed the complaint with her;
- the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting information it provided; and
- relevant law, guidance and Council policy.
What I found
- Councils have a general duty to take action to tackle anti-social behaviour (ASB). But ASB can take many different forms; and councils should make informed decisions about which of their powers is most appropriate for any given situation.
- For example, they may approach a complaint:
- as an environmental health issue, where the complaint is about noise or pollution;
- as part of their duties as a social landlord, where the alleged perpetrator is a council tenant (although we are unable to investigate the council’s actions as a social landlord); or
- using their powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
- the power to issue community protection notices (CPN);
- the power to make a public spaces protection order (PSPO);
- the power to close premises for a specified period of time;
- a civil injunction (a court order, which can be made upon application by the local authority or other agencies);
- a criminal behaviour order (a court order made following a conviction); and
- the power for the police to disperse people from a specified area.
Council’s anti-social behaviour policy
- The Council’s ASB team works with the police and other agencies as part of a Community Safety Partnership (CSP). We can only consider the Council’s actions as part of the CSP, not the actions of the other agencies or any joint decisions.
- The Council’s ASB procedures say that, where the ASB might be serious enough to be a criminal offence, the case is allocated to a police officer to decide whether a police investigation would be more suitable. Where a criminal offence has been committed, the policy says the police would be the best agency to respond to any reports.
- Under local policies, the Council is the agency responsible for coordinating the community trigger process and assessing applications for a review.
- Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), councils have a duty to take reasonable steps to investigate potential ‘statutory nuisances’.
- Typical things which may be a statutory nuisance include noise from premises or vehicles, equipment or machinery in the street.
- For the issue to count as a statutory nuisance, it must:
- unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises; and / or
- injure health or be likely to injure health.
- Miss X first reported noise problems from her neighbour to the Council several years ago. This escalated into harassment from Miss X’s neighbour against Miss X and her family. Both Miss X and her neighbour own their homes.
- Since first reporting the problem, Miss X has contacted the Council several times asking for help dealing with the harassment from her neighbour.
- The Council says that, since the harassment was serious, this part of Miss X’s ASB reports has been handled by the police and the Council concentrated on Miss X’s reports of noise.
- In April 2020, the Council closed the noise complaint because it had not been able to contact Miss X for several months. Miss X says she emailed the officer responsible for her case but did not get a reply. In its response to Miss X’s complaint, the Council said the officer was on long-term leave and it could not access the officer’s emails.
- The Council re-opened Miss X’s noise complaint in June 2020. The Council sent Miss X a nuisance diary and asked her to complete this so it could consider the use of noise monitoring equipment. It also asked Miss X to contact its out of hours service if necessary and explained that her reports of harassment were handled by the police.
- The evidence shows the Council maintained contact with the police between June 2020 and mid-2021. Because of the ongoing police investigation, the Council continued to concentrate on Miss X’s noise complaints.
- The Council sent warning letters to Miss X’s neighbour and warned them that noise monitoring equipment might be used.
- In August 2020, the Council’s out-of-hours service attended Miss X’s property and witness excess noise from her neighbour. It sent another warning to Miss X’s neighbour and asked Miss X to continue reporting incidents of noise. Miss X told the Council she was unhappy there was no long-term plan to deal with the harassment and that she did not feel safe in her home.
- There was no contact between Miss X and the Council between September and December 2020. The records show the Council checked the out of hours logs regularly during that time but found no further reports of noise. In December 2020 it told Miss X it intended to close the noise investigation because there had been no reports of further incidents.
- Miss X contacted the Council again in May 2021. She complained the Council had done nothing to stop the harassment from her neighbour, which was continuing. The Council re-opened the noise investigation in June 2021 and offered to provide Miss X with noise monitoring equipment so it could gather evidence for further action. The records show Miss X was reluctant to do this, because she was worried it would make the harassment worse.
- I have investigated the Council’s actions from April 2020. For the reasons given at the end of this statement, I cannot investigate matters before this. I also cannot investigate any action taken by the police.
Reports of noise
- The evidence shows that, from June 2020, the Council properly investigated Miss X’s complaints of noise. It asked Miss X to complete diary sheets, offered to install noise monitoring equipment and approached Miss X’s neighbour after it witnessed the noise itself.
- I am also satisfied the Council was not at fault when it closed the noise investigations in April 2020 and December 2020. The Council did this after attempting to contact Miss X several times and checking its records for further reports.
- However, the Council accepted in its response to Miss X’s complaint that it had not replied to several emails Miss X sent between April and June 2020 because it could not access emails for an officer on long-term leave. In such cases, we would expect councils to have procedures in place to either monitor emails of absent staff, redirect emails or provide alternative contact details. I am satisfied the Council did not do this and that this was fault. Given the two-month delay in re-opening Miss X’s noise complaint, I am satisfied this caused Miss X avoidable frustration. The Council has apologised to Miss X and I am satisfied that apology is a suitable remedy.
- The Councils ASB policy says that, where behaviour is serious enough to be a criminal offence, the police may be the appropriate agency to respond. The evidence shows the Council explained to Miss X that the police were the agency responsible for addressing the harassment from her neighbour.
- In its response to my enquiries, the Council explained it had considered the powers available to it in paragraph 13 above and decided the only relevant options were superseded by the police investigation and a later prosecution. I am satisfied with the Council’s explanation and that there was no fault with how it referred Miss X’s reports of harassment to the police.
- At least twice between April 2020 and June 2021, Miss X told the Council she was dissatisfied with the action being taken to stop the harassment. She told the Council she did not feel safe in her home. Despite this, the Council accepts it did not provide Miss X with details of the community trigger process.
- Although the Council was not leading on the response to the harassment, Miss X was complaining about the response to the ASB by the Council and its partner agencies. Therefore, the Council should have told Miss X about the community trigger process and how she could ask for a review. I am satisfied this was fault which caused Miss X avoidable frustration, worry and uncertainty about the actions being taken to stop the harassment.
- The Council also accepts that it does not currently publish details of the community trigger process on its website. This is fault.
- Within one month of my final decision the Council will:
- apologise to Miss X for not telling her about the community trigger process when she told it she was not happy with the action being taken;
- pay Miss X £200 for the avoidable distress, time and trouble caused by not telling her about the community trigger process and her having to complain; and
- take an ASB case review application from Miss X and process this without delay.
- review its processes with accessing emails for ASB staff on long-term leave to ensure messages are reviewed and acted on appropriately;
- remind staff in its ASB teams about the ASB case review process and when they should tell people about the process; and
- publish the information about the ASB case review process on its website, as required by the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
- I have completed my investigation. There was no fault in how the Council investigated Miss X’s reports about noise nuisance or harassment. However, there was fault in how the Council dealt with messages sent to absent staff and how it failed to provide information about the ASB case review process. The Council agreed to apologise to Miss X, pay her a financial remedy and process an ASB case review application. It also agreed to review its procedures.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have not investigated events before April 2020. These happened more than 12 months before Miss X complained to the Ombudsman so Miss X’s complaint about those events is late. We cannot investigate late complaints unless there are good reasons. There are no good reasons Miss X could not have complained sooner and no other good reasons to investigate those events now.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman