Norfolk County Council (15 019 630)

Category : Environment and regulation > Trading standards

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 19 Sep 2016

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There is no evidence of fault in how the Council decided not to investigate Mr X’s complaint about a company. The Council did not clearly explain to Mr X why Trading Standards would not investigate his complaint but this did not caused significant enough injustice to him to warrant a remedy from the Council.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains that the Council’s Trading Standards:
  • unreasonably refused to pursue his complaint about a company
  • failed to notify him that it would not pursue his complaint against the company.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, the Ombudsman can investigate complaints about the action of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7))
  2. The Ombudsman investigates complaints of injustice caused by maladministration and service failure. I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
  3. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. She must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. She provides a free service, but must use public money carefully. She may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if she believes:
  • it is unlikely she would find fault, or
  • the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • the injustice is not significant enough to justify her involvement,
  • she cannot achieve the outcome someone wants (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have:
    • considered the complaint and the information provided by Mr X;
    • discussed the issues with Mr X;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the information provided;
    • invited Mr X and the Council to comment on the draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Mr X purchased goods from a company. When delivered he found the goods was not as he had ordered.
  2. People wishing to report a company to Trading Standards contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service (CACS). CACS will assess the complaint and decide if it is appropriate to pass it to a councils Trading Standards. The Council has agreed a protocol with CACS to decide which complaints are referred to Trading Standards.
  3. The parts of the protocol relevant to this complaint are:
    • referral without commitment – CACS will refer details to Trading Standards if there appears to be a breach of Trading Standards law for intelligence gathering purposes. There is no commitment for Trading Standards to contact the consumer or to investigate.
    • referral with commitment – CACS will refer to Trading Standard for investigation if the complaints identify breaches of Trading Standards law. These are complaints which raise serious financial issues or imminent safety concerns.
  4. The Council’s Trading Standards Consumer Services Policy sets out the areas the service will concentrate on. This includes protecting consumers by targeting the most serious fraudulent, illegal and unfair trading. So Trading Standards will only investigate cases which raise serious financial issues or immediate safety concerns.
  5. In January 2016 Mr X contacted CACS to report the company supplying the goods. The record of his call to CACS notes his complaint was classified as referral no commitment. The record of the call notes the advisor gave advice to Mr X about his consumer rights. Mr X says he was given a reference number and the advisor told him his complaint would be referred to Trading Standards for investigation.
  6. Mr X contacted CACS again to see when he would receive a response from Trading Standards. The record of the all notes the advisor gave Mr X some advice about his consumer rights.
  7. Mr X contacted CACS again. The record of the call notes Mr X wanted to contact Trading Standards direct to see if they had done anything with his complaint. The record notes an advisor told Mr X that Trading Standards would not provide civil intervention. The record categorises Mr X’s complaint as referral without commitment.
  8. Mr X complained to the Council about Trading Standards not contacting him. The Council replied to Mr X’s complaint. It explained that Trading Standards had no obligation to contact him as his complaint about the company did not meet the criteria for Trading Standards involvement. The Council did not explain the criteria.
  9. Mr X made a complaint to the Ombudsman as he considered CACS had told him his complaint would be referred to Trading Standards and he had not been informed that it would not do so. He also complained that he could not contact Trading Standards direct.

My assessment

  1. The Council has not explained precisely why Mr X’s complaint about the company was categorised as referral no commitment. But I will not pursue the matter further as there is no evidence to suggest the classification is incorrect. The Council’s policy is to only investigate complaints which raise serious financial or imminent safety issues. Mr X’s complaint about the company did not raise such issues.
  2. Mr X has said that CACS told him that his complaint would be investigated by Trading Standards. I could only find fault if there was evidence to show CACS told Mr X that Trading Standards would investigate his complaint. There is no evidence to show that CACS wrongly advised Mr X that Trading Standards would investigate it as there is no record of this advice in the call records. But I will not pursue the matter further. I recognise Mr X’s expectations would have been raised and he may have been put to some time and trouble if CACS wrongly advised that Trading Standards would investigate. But it would be disproportionate to the injustice Mr X could have suffered, and the outcome I can achieve for him, to investigate the matter further.
  3. The Council was not at fault in not allowing Mr X to contact Trading Standards directly. CACS is the point of contact for members of the public when complaints are not being investigated by Trading Standards. Mr X has said the Council did not tell him that it would not be investigating his complaint. This is not fault as Mr X’s complaint was not one that Trading Standards would investigate. This information should be provided by CACS. As I explain in paragraph 16, I do not know if this is information was provided by CACS but I will not pursue this matter further.
  4. Mr X has questioned why the Council would not investigate his complaint about the company when he considers other councils would have done. Councils have wide discretion to decide the level of services they will provide. Differing levels of service between councils is not evidence of fault.
  5. The Council’s response to Mr X’s complaint lacked clarity. The Council disagrees with this finding but it has not provided any evidence to show it clearly explained why Mr X’s particular complaint did not meet the criteria for referral. The Council provided a general explanation of the role of CACS. But it did not clearly explain to Mr X why his particular complaint would not be investigated. The Council did not explain that his complaint had been categorised as referral without commitment and what that meant. The Council has said further explanation was provided by telephone but there is no evidence to show what officers told Mr X. So I consider, on balance, the Council is at fault. As a result Mr X could not understand why Trading Standards would not investigate his complaint. This will have caused some uncertainty to Mr X. But this is not significant enough injustice to warrant a remedy from the Council.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of fault in how the Council decided not to investigate Mr X’s complaint about a company. The Council did not clearly explain to Mr X why it would not investigate his complaint but this did not caused significant enough injustice to him to warrant a remedy from the Council.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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