North Lincolnshire Council (20 001 502)

Category : Environment and regulation > COVID-19

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 26 Nov 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There is no fault by the Council in limiting mourners at a funeral because the decision was in line with government guidance at the time.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complains North Lincolnshire Council (the Council) limited mourners at funerals to 12. She says the Council did not give clear information to funeral directors.
  2. Mrs X says this caused avoidable distress because she had already invited more than 12 mourners to her father’s funeral.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered:
    • Mrs X’s complaint to the Council and its reply
    • Documents described later in this statement
  2. I discussed the complaint with Mrs X.
  3. Mrs X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and guidance

  1. This complaint involves events during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published Good Administrative Practice during the response to Covid-19.
  2. COVID-19: Guidance for managing a funeral during the coronavirus pandemic issued on 19 April said:
    • Only the funeral director, chapel attendant funeral staff and members of the deceased’s household and close family members may attend, plus a celebrant if the bereaved requested this.
    • Close friends may only attend if the person’s household and close family members cannot attend.
    • Those organising a funeral should restrict the number of mourners who attend so that a safe distance of at least two metres can be maintained
    • The size and circumstances of the venue will determine the maximum number that can be accommodated while maintaining social distancing. Venue managers may set caps.
  3. The guidance in the previous paragraph applied at the time of Mrs X’s father’s funeral, 20 May. There was no national cap on the number of attendees at a funeral. At the time of writing (12 November) the updated guidance has a limit of 30, but this did not apply in May 2020.

What happened

  1. The Council’s bereavement services team sent regular updates to funeral directors in April. Those updates asked funeral directors to advise families that only close family members (defined as spouse/partner, parents/carer, siblings and children) could attend a funeral service. The updates in April did not have any cap. The update on 17 April specifically said the Council continued not to put a figure on the number of close family members that could attend, but it was reviewing the situation every day.
  2. The update on 24 April included a copy of the guidance described in paragraph nine and explained although the Council had no limit, there may be times when it would restrict mourners if social distancing of two metres could not be maintained.
  3. Mrs X was arranging her father’s funeral in the first week of May. She told us the funeral director told her she could have up to 15 mourners in the chapel.
  4. The bereavement services team continued to send updates to funeral directors in May. The update on 12 May said there had been an increase in attendance at the chapel over the past week and so the Council had decided to restrict mourners to 12.
  5. A crematorium manager completed a risk assessment on the chapel. This said the size of the chapel (10 meters by 25 meters) meant the most mourners it could safely accommodate to enable two meters of social distancing between households was 12. The risk assessment set out measures to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus including hand sanitisers, a one-way system, closing the waiting area and signs and floor markings. A manager also completed an inspection of the chapel.
  6. The Council updated its website on 13 May to say a maximum of 12 close family members could attend a funeral.
  7. Mrs X told us she found about the cap on 14 May through the funeral director and contacted the crematorium to complain. The manager responded saying:
    • The Council needed to restrict numbers to 12 to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus
    • It provided funeral directors with regular updates
    • There were no formal restrictions on numbers until last week when numbers started to increase to unmanageable levels
    • It was sorry if she had been told that 15 close relatives was acceptable, but council staff at the crematorium had never said this.
    • She could only have up to 12 mourners and the Council was sorry this had an impact on how she was able to mourn.
  8. Mrs X responded saying she was unhappy and felt it was unfair to punish those who had already made arrangements on the basis of others’ bad behaviour.
  9. The funeral director emailed the bereavement services manager on 18 May saying‘ I met with the family and explained to them that the government ruling is 10 people at the service but the staff ….. have been very nice and have been allowing up to 15 people to attend…. I said to the family that 15 people could attend going by the amount of attendees at other services…when we received the update of strengthening the amount of mourners to 12, I let the family know this straight away’
  10. The Council’s second response to Mrs X’s complaint said:
    • The situation was evolving and arrangements needed to be updated in line with government guidance
    • It kept the situation under review and numbers began increasing at the chapel and it was deemed unsafe, so the cap at 12 began on 14 May
    • It was sorry changes were made at short notice, but it had to ensure the safety of mourners and staff.

Was there fault?

  1. The Council was not responsible for Mrs X’s belief that 15 mourners could attend her father’s funeral. The email from the funeral director indicates he gave inaccurate information to Mrs X including that the government restricted the number of mourners to 10. There was no national cap of 10 mourners and while the funeral director may have seen up to 15 mourners at funerals he attended in North Lincolnshire, there is no evidence of a cap on numbers before the risk assessment of 13 May. I am also satisfied the Council communicated its policy and the change to policy clearly to funeral directors in written updates.
  2. There is no fault in the Council’s decision to cap numbers at 12. The Council acted in line with government guidance in paragraph nine. It carried out a risk assessment on the crematorium and decided 12 was a safe number based on the size of the chapel and the need to maintain social distancing.
  3. I understand Mrs X’s argument that she had already sent invitations and the Council ought to have been more flexible. But I do not consider there is fault in not making an exception for funerals already arranged with more than 12 people. The timing of the decision to limit numbers was unfortunate, but as the decision was properly made, there are no grounds for me to criticise it. Any delay in implementing the risk assessment may have placed mourners and workers at an avoidable increased risk from COVID-19.

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Final decision

  1. There is no fault by the Council in limiting mourners at a funeral because the decision was in line with government guidance at the time.
  2. I have completed the investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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