The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council wrongly cleared his friend’s property and disposed of all items following their death. The Council was at fault. We cannot say whether a full house clearance was necessary, but there was a lack of evidence to support the actions the Council took. The Council has already agreed to waive the clearance fee, apologised for any distress caused and it also put measures in place to improve how it manages similar cases. These are appropriate actions to remedy any injustice caused to Mr X. The Council has agreed it will also review how it communicates with contractors to carry out work it has requested them to do.
- Mr X complained about the Council’s actions in relation to his friend’s property following their death. He said the Council:
- Unlawfully cleared the property.
- Wrongly disposed of items with sentimental and monetary value.
- Responded to him inappropriately when he complained about the Council’s actions.
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 spoke with Mr X about his complaint and considered the information he provided.
- I considered the information provided by the Council.
- I considered our ‘Guidance on Remedies’ and our guidance on ‘Principles of Good Administrative Practice’.
- Mr X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on the draft version of this decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
What I found
- Section 83 of the Public Health Act 1936 states if a council receives a report from any of its officers or other information in its possession that any premises are:
- in a filthy or unwholesome condition that could be detrimental to health, or
a council can give notice to the owner or occupier of the premises requiring them to take action to treat the condition of the premises by cleansing and disinfecting them. The notice may require among other things, the removal of wallpaper or other covering of the walls. If a premises is verminous, this action may be necessary to destroy or remove the vermin.
- Section 84 of the Public Health Act 1936 states if it appears to a council that any item in the premises is:
- in such a filthy condition that cleansing or destruction of it is necessary to prevent injury, or risk of injury, to the health of any person in the premises; or
- verminous or is likely to be verminous,
a council can cleanse, purify, disinfect or destroy that item as the case may require and if necessary, remove the item from the premises.
- The Treasury Solicitor administers the estates of people who die intestate (without a valid will) or without a known next of kin.
- In March 2020, the Coroner’s Office informed the Council that a woman, Ms Y, had passed away in her privately-owned home. The Coroner’s Office said Ms Y’s family members were unknown and because of this, it would be the Council’s responsibility to make funeral arrangements. The Coroner’s Office added Ms Y had a history of hoarding items.
- Following this, the Council visited Ms Y’s property with the intention of locating important documents such as Ms Y’s will, funeral plans, family details and bank statements. The Council said its officers only managed to locate Ms Y’s bank details as they found it difficult to gain access to other parts of the property due to the amount of hoarded items inside. Its officers stopped the search part way through as they deemed it to be a health and safety risk. Officers did not make any records of this visit or take any photographs of the property.
- As the Council had no information of Ms Y’s family members, it referred the case to the Treasury Solicitor. The Coroner’s Office also placed an appeal to locate any family members. During this time, the Council conducted a funeral for Ms Y.
- In April 2020, the Council said it received a complaint from a neighbour of Ms Y’s property who said there was a smell coming from the property. The Council referred the complaint to its Environmental Health Team and it agreed that the property would need to be cleaned and rubbish would need to be cleared. The Council’s Environmental Health Team said usually in such cases, it would visit the property and advise on what action should be taken. However, with the start of Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions, the Environmental Health Team said it was only able to conduct visits in exceptional circumstances and felt the case around Ms Y’s property did not require a visit from the Team. However, it acknowledged that the case had to be handled as a priority because if the property was left as it was, the condition of the property could worsen.
- Following this, the Council hired a contractor to clear the property and retrieve Ms Y’s handbag which the officers had seen but had not been able to access during their visit. Ms X’s property was cleared and all items were disposed of. The total cost of this job was £5760. The contractor said it was unable to locate Ms Y’s handbag. The contractor did take photographs which showed the property to be extremely cluttered. However, the photographs did not show evidence of vermin or such filthy conditions which would be likely to injure health.
- By August 2020, solicitors had managed to locate Ms Y’s family members and a will. In January 2021, Mr X found he was a named beneficiary of Ms Y’s estate. Following this, the Council billed Mr X and the other named beneficiaries with the cost of clearing the property.
- Upon discovering Ms Y’s property had been cleaned and all items disposed of, Mr X complained to the Council. He was unhappy with the Council’s actions and said it was not clear why the Council had asked the contractor to clear the property and dispose of all Ms Y’s belongings including ones which had sentimental and monetary value. He also said the Council did not properly consult with its Environmental Health Team. Mr X said the contractor was not able to locate Ms Y’s handbag during the clearance and complained the Council never investigated this further. He said the handbag would have contained personal items such as her phone and purse. Mr X said it wasn’t clear which law the Council had used to clear the property and dispose of all items. He also said the Council had responded inappropriately to his previous queries.
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint. It said it had consulted adequately with its Environmental Health Team. It had considered Ms Y’s property to be a public health risk because of the condition of the property and the complaint in relation to the smell it had received. It said there was an additional concern with Covid-19 and its transmission at the time and clearing out the property and disposing of items was the most appropriate response to the complaint it had received.
- The Council said its officers and the contractor had seen evidence of vermin being present inside the property. It informed Mr X the contractor said everything in the property was contaminated and so a full clearance of it was required.
- The Council said it had discussed Ms Y’s handbag with the contractor and said it was not able to locate it. It concluded it could not know what happened to the handbag and it was not clear whether there were other keyholders, so it could not take the matter any further.
- The Council considered Mr X’s complaint about how it responded to his queries. It said it would carry out observations with the whole team to ensure it was professional, polite and courteous at all times. It also said his concern would form part of the lessons learnt process.
- The Council said it acted in good faith and proportionality considering the circumstances of the case, however, it acknowledged errors in how it handled some aspects. It recognised sentimental items such as photographs, if they were recoverable, could have been given to the Treasury Solicitors.
- The Council provided Mr X with photographs taken by the contractor which showed clutter in Ms Y’s property. However, it acknowledged there were no photographs from the officer’s visit in March 2020 to support the position that the property was filthy or verminous.
- The Council accepted the email sent to the contractor when it initially asked it to carry out the work was not formal enough and did not give clear instructions to the contractor.
- The Council said it would use this complaint to review its working practices and share this with the wider team so lessons were learned. It said it would ensure improvements were made to its practice in similar cases in future. It apologised to Mr X for the distress and inconvenience the matter caused him. The Council said as there were errors in how it handled some aspects of the case, it would waive the house clearance cost of £5760.
- Mr X said he never wanted the property to be cleaned and items to be disposed of and said the Council should never have charged the cost of this to the beneficiaries of the estate. He remained unhappy and complained to us.
The Council’s response to our enquiries
- In response to our enquiries, the Council said:
- when its officers visited Ms Y’s property in March 2020, they noted a strong smell and evidence of vermin droppings. However, it was unable to provide evidence to support this.
- it took action to clean the property and dispose of all items because it considered the property to be a public health risk. This was because of the condition of the property including vermin being present and the complaint it received from a neighbour.
- The Council’s Environmental Health Team said due to the condition of the property as well as the complaint of a smell, it was very likely the property was filthy and/or verminous. However, it was not clear on what basis the Team reached this conclusion.
- The Council said the contractor has since told it that it did find evidence of vermin in the property during the clearance. However, there was no evidence to support this in photographs taken by the contractor or the correspondence between the contractor and the Council at the time.
- The Council said its actions to clear the property and dispose of items were based on vermin being present in the property and the complaint it received from a neighbour regarding smell coming from the property. However, there was a lack of evidence which illustrated it based its decision on these factors and this is because:
- when the Council initially visited the property in March 2020, it said there was evidence of vermin droppings. However, there was no report recorded at the time detailing the Council’s findings when it visited the property and no photographs from this visit.
- the Council said the contractor told it there was evidence of vermin at the property, but there was no report from the contractor recorded at the time, detailing this information. In addition, the photographs taken by the contractor did not show there was evidence of vermin such as vermin droppings.
- the Council said its Environmental Health Team received a complaint from a neighbour about a smell originating from the property. It was unable to provide us with a copy of this complaint.
- although the Council’s Environmental Health Team said it was likely there was vermin present and the property was a risk to public health, it was unclear on what evidence it reached this position.
- Within one month of the final decision, the Council will provide evidence to show it has completed observations and any appropriate actions to ensure relevant staff are professional and courteous at all times, particularly when dealing with sensitive matters.
- Within two months of the final decision, the Council will review how it communicates with contractors about jobs in similar cases to ensure it provides clear and detailed instructions on the work which needs doing.
- I have now completed my investigation. There was evidence of fault by the Council, but it has already acted to remedy any injustice caused to Mr X. The Council has also agreed to the recommendations for it to improve its services.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman