The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council took too long to apply for a warrant to inspect the home of Mr B’s neighbour. It was aware of genuine concerns about vermin and could not to gain access to the property but it failed to take legal action until eight months later. This resulted in Mr B being subjected to vermin in his property for longer than he should have been.
- The complainant, Mr B, complains there was unreasonable delay from the Council dealing with his concerns about vermin and other environmental issues from his neighbour. He said this resulted in him living with vermin for 15 months.
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)
- 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 have:
- Read the papers submitted by Mr B and discussed the complaint with him.
- Considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided.
- Provided both parties with an opportunity to comment on a draft decision and considered any comments.
What I found
- Filthy or verminous premises are properties that are infested by vermin (including rats, mice, insects or parasites) or in such a filthy or unwholesome condition as to be prejudicial to health. The Council under the provisions of the Public Health Acts, Environmental Protection Act 1990 or the Prevention of Damages by Pests Act, can take action to remedy the issues.
- Once the Council has been notified of such a premises, an officer should carry out an inspection to decide if enforcement action is required. Once this has been determined, discussions with the owner and/or occupier should take place to try and gain an agreement to remove all rubbish/ vermin and to thoroughly clean the property. If they fail to comply, the Council can serve a statutory notice requiring the property to be cleaned and all rubbish and filthy articles removed.
- Failure to comply with the requirements of the notice may result in either prosecution and/or the Council carrying out the works in default (i.e. appointing a contractor) and recovering the costs back from the owner/occupier.
Events leading to the complaint
- In April 2017 Mr B started to experience problems with mice. He believed they were coming from his neighbour’s property because he would find them in the adjoining wall cavity. He decided to approach the landlord who lived locally, but the landlord said he had never met the tenant or been into the property and could not help him. Mr B, therefore, decided to approach the Council to report the vermin and an overgrown garden.
- A Community Protection Officer (Officer A) visited the neighour’s property in August 2017. He discovered that the garden was overgrown but could not see any evidence of vermin from the outside and arranged to speak to Mr B to find out more information. The Council visited Mr B in September 2017 and noted that the mice were in the wall cavities and therefore it was likely they were coming from his neighbour’s property. Officer A tried to speak to the neighbour but they did not answer the door.
- After the visit, Officer A wrote to the landlord and the tenant and said he had visited the property, in response to a complaint, and found that the garden was overgrown. He asked both parties to maintain the garden and said if they failed to do this, and the Council found evidence of vermin, it had the necessary powers to act.
- Mr B continued to report problems with vermin and told the Council he had caught 24 mice over a 24-hour period. In October 2017, an internal email between Council staff evidences that it had concerns that the neighbour’s property was “full of vermin” but it could not gain access to complete an inspection.
- There is no record of the Council taking action on the complaint in November and December 2017. In January and February 2018, the Council completed three further visits to try and gain access to the neighbour’s property but were unable to do so. Mr B became frustrated with the lack of progress and wrote to the Council in April 2018 to complain. Mr B told the Ombudsman, Officer A told him to complain to the Council because he was having problems escalating the complaint for legal action. The Council acknowledged the complaint and said it would respond by 7 May.
- Throughout April and May 2018 Officer A continued to try and gain access to the property but the neighbour did not open the door or respond to his letters. On 10 May Mr B chased the Council because it had failed to respond to his complaint. The Council did not respond to this letter and therefore Mr B approached the Ombudsman on 24 May 2018.
- The Council responded to Mr B’s complaint on 30 May 2018 and apologised for the delay. It said it was aware Officer A was in regular contact with him and his investigations were still ongoing. The Council said it was exploring whether to take court action and would decide within the next two weeks and update him.
- There is no record of any progress on the case in June 2018. On 25 July 2018, the Council wrote to the neighbour and said it was considering applying to the court for a warrant to gain access to the property. It said if they did not respond by 30 July the Council would refer the matter to court.
- The Council did not receive a response and therefore on 3 August applied to court for a warrant to gain access to the property under the Public Health Act 1936. The court granted the warrant and the same day the Council attended the property, alongside the police, and gained access. On entry, the Council said it confirmed its suspicions that the property was “filthy, unwholesome and vermious”. Therefore, it served a notice on the landlord to complete the necessary remedial work within 14 days. This included cleaning the property, removing rubbish and using a qualified professional to remove the vermin.
- The Council completed a follow-up inspection on 14 August and found that the house had been cleaned and rubbish removed. But the landlord had not used a qualified professional to remove the vermin and therefore the Council provided him with details of a contractor he could use.
- Two weeks later the Council contacted the contractor and discovered that the landlord had not contacted him. It, therefore, decided to complete another inspection. The inspection confirmed that the landlord had not used a qualified professional to remove the vermin and therefore he had failed to comply with the notice. The Council spoke to Mr B who confirmed he was no longer experiencing problems and, therefore, it decided not to take enforcement action against the landlord.
- In response to the Ombudsman’s enquiries the Council acknowledged that it should have taken legal action sooner. Therefore, Mr B was subjected to vermin and a nuisance for longer than she should have been. Mr B states between April 2017 and August 2018 he caught 172 mice in his bedroom wall cavity which caused him distress and impacted on his sleep.
- Councils have discretion to decide when to pursue a legal route. Before taking any legal action, it would be appropriate for the Council to try and resolve the issue informally first. When Mr B first complained to the Council this is what it attempted to do. But it could not access the neighbour’s property to complete an inspection and Mr B was regularly reporting problems with vermin.
- The Council suspected there was a problem with vermin in October 2017, yet it did not start pursuing legal action until July 2018. This is fault. The Council should have started to seek legal advice in October 2017, it should have also continued to complete inspections attempts in November and December 2017. Had the Council acted without delay it is likely Mr B’s problems with vermin would have been resolved in December 2017; eight months earlier. Therefore, because of the Council’s fault he experienced problems with vermin for longer than necessary. The Council also took too long to respond to his complaint which added to his frustration and time and trouble.
- In recognition of the faults identified above the Council, within six weeks of my final decision, has agreed to:
- Apologise to Mr B for the time, trouble and distress he has experienced.
- Pay Mr B £500 for the time, trouble and distress he has experienced.
- Complete a review of the complaint and identify what went wrong, any learning points and an action plan (with timescales) to help ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. It should provide a copy of this to the Ombudsman.
- The Council took too long to apply for a warrant to inspect the home of Mr B’s neighbour. It was aware of genuine concerns about vermin and could not to gain access to the property but it failed to take legal action until eight months later. This resulted in Mr B being subjected to vermin in his property for longer than he should have been. The Council has agreed to my recommendations; therefore I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman