The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault by the Council on Mr F’s complaint about it delaying the sale of the property it jointly owned with him by about 7 months. The Council raised his expectation that he would receive £1,000 for delays and poor communication. It later told him it previously deducted this from its invoice but failed to provide evidence. The avoidable injustice caused was remedied by it agreeing to apologise, pay the sum offered or the amount he paid for outgoings whichever was higher, pay him £300, and carry out reviews to learn from its failures.
- Mr F complains the Council’s actions delayed the sale of the former home it jointly owned with him; as a result, the sale process took too long causing him frustration and financial loss.
- The paragraph at the end of this final decision explains why I have not investigated any part of Mr F’s complaint about the Council’s actions that took place before July 2016. I have taken this date to investigate from as this is when he found a buyer.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information provided by Mr F, the notes I made of our telephone conversation, as well as the Council’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent him. The Council did not send evidence to support what it said about what happened with the conveyancing process. I sent my draft decision to Mr F and the Council. I considered their responses.
What I found
- Mr F and the Council each owned a 50% share in a property (the Property). He paid the Council equity shared rent each month. This was because he rented the Council owned share of the Property. Mr F moved out of the Property in October 2014.
- In 2015, he decided he wanted to sell it. He was unhappy it took 8 months for a valuer to visit and a further 3 months for the Council to consent to its sale. As the Council would not buy his share, he instructed an estate agent and had to pay the agent’s fees in full even though the Council owned a half share.
- Mr F argued the Council’s delays when he found a buyer, put him to additional expense. The delays meant he had to:
- repeat a ‘buyer’s pack’ costing him a further £168 as the first one expired; and
- pay more council tax, rent, and an annual service charge for the Property than he should. He believed the total additional cost was £30,000.
- Despite saying it would pay him £1,000 because of the delays, the Council later said it had deducted this from its legal bill Mr F paid which he does not accept.
Chronology of events
- These are the key dates:
- August: Mr F began the process to put the house up for sale;
- January: The Council confirmed it received notice from Mr F’s solicitors about a potential sale. It appointed a valuer to provide a valuation report;
- February: Valuation report received;
- April: The legal department (Legal) made enquiries of the instructing Council department (Home Buy) about the lease and sale type. It received a response the same month;
- May: Legal sent a reminder to Mr F’s solicitor about whether a buyer was found;
- July: Legal asked Home Buy about the sale price as Mr F confirmed he had a buyer;
- February: In response to my enquiries, the Council said Home Buy accepted it was responsible for the delay from July 2016 to February 2017. An email from Legal (dated October 2017) confirmed it made several requests to Home Buy but failed to receive instructions about the amount the buyer would pay. As a result of its delay giving instructions, Home Buy apologised to Mr F and waived its administration fee of £150;
- April: Legal amended the transfer documentation due to incorrect details by the buyer’s solicitors;
- May: Legal appointed a new officer who raised a query with Home Buy about the freehold status of the Property;
- June: Legal received a response to its query;
- August: The buyer’s solicitor made further requests. The Council gave the example of the buyer wanting to disconnect the communal boiler; and
- September: The completion of the sale took place. Once the Property was sold, Mr F complained to the Council about its actions.
- In response to Mr F’s complaint, the Council sent its stage 1 response in November 2017 upholding it because of poor communication and the time taken to complete the sale. In it, the Council:
- Accepted there was a delay when it was made aware that the lease registered at HM Land Registry was wrongly dated;
- Apologised for delays up to April 2016;
- Accepted its solicitors did not communicate with his solicitor in a ‘timely manner’;
- Noted there were further delays between March/April 2017; and
- Told Mr F that Legal decided to ‘compensate you to the sum of £1,000. I have asked them to contact you to arrange payment’.
- When the Council failed to respond to his query about payment of the compensation, he complained to the Ombudsman. At this point, the Council said the £1,000 was awarded by way of a deduction in its legal fees. Mr F did not accept this explanation. He claimed the reduction of Legal’s fees from £8,000 to just over £3,000 was negotiated by his solicitor. This was before he complained about delay.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council sent copies of internal emails. An email dated 6 November enclosed a draft response to Mr F with a proposal for Legal to consider returning some of the fees because of delays. When the same officer chased Legal a few days later, she received an email saying ‘The solicitor agreed our fees. I would propose a refund of £1,000’. The officer responded by saying she would contact Mr F to arrange payment so would be grateful if this could happen as soon as possible.
- The Council accepted there were delays between July 2016 and February 2017. This is fault.
- The Council should have paid Mr F the £1,000 it referred to in its stage 1 response. The failure to do so is fault. This is because the letter said the Council would arrange to make this payment to him. It was reasonable, therefore, for Mr F to expect the Council to make the payment. The letter was sent because of an email from Legal which said the officer proposed a refund of £1,000. The email did not say this had already been deducted from the Council’s Legal fees Mr F paid.
- Nor did the Council provide any evidence to show this had been deducted because of the issues about which Mr F complained. Indeed, Mr F deliberately withheld complaining until completion of the sale.
- The fault caused Mr F an injustice as he incurred costs because of the delays, had his expectations raised that he would receive £1,000, and suffered inconvenience and frustration.
- I considered our guidance on remedies.
- The Council will, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, do the following;
- Send Mr F a written apology for the delays identified and its failure to send him the £1,000;
- Calculate and pay Mr F the proportion of the rent, annual service charge, and council tax payable during the 7-month period of delay or pay him the £1,000 it originally offered, whichever is the higher figure. Evidence of its calculations need sending to Mr F and the Ombudsman;
- Pay him £300 for the raised expectations Mr F had when he received the stage 1 response about the payment, as well as for the inconvenience and frustration he experienced by the delays;
- If it has not done so already, refund him the second payment he made for a buyer’s pack as the information lapsed because of the passage of time;
- Review why the delay occurred and take steps to ensure it is not repeated on future cases; and
- Review why it failed to pay him the sum offered to ensure similar mistakes are not made on future cases.
- The Ombudsman found fault on Mr F’s complaint against the Council. The agreed action remedies the avoidable injustice caused.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate the following parts of his complaint:
- Any complaint he had about the Council’s actions before July 2016. This is the date the sale process began as Mr F found a buyer. I consider any complaint about actions before that date as ‘late’; and
- Any complaint he had about the Council failing to pay half of the cost of the estate agent’s fees. This is because he was legally represented at the time and could have sought advice about challenging it.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman