The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs Y complains about the Council’s handling of a request for information required for a property sale and her complaint about this. The Ombudsman has found fault by the Council causing injustice. It has agreed to remedy this by paying Mrs Y £429.80 to reflect the additional costs, distress, time and trouble its faults caused her.
- The complainant, who I am calling Mrs Y, complains the Council failed to respond in a timely way to:
- requests for information required for the sale of her late mother’s property; and
- her request for a stage two complaint response.
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 spoken to Mrs Y and read the information she and the Council have provided about the complaint.
- I invited Mrs Y and the Council to comment on a draft version of this decision. I considered their responses before making my final decision.
What I found
- In 2019 a sale was arranged of Mrs Y’s late mother’s house. The garden included land which was leased to Mrs Y’s late parents by the Council. On 10 May, further I understand, to queries from the buyers’ solicitors, Mrs Y’s solicitor wrote to the Council’s estates team asking whether it would agree to extend the garden lease or grant a new lease for a longer term.
- The estates team did not respond. Mrs Y’s solicitor chased it for a reply. From July Mrs Y also contacted it by phone and email asking for a response.
- There was still no reply from the estates team. On 1 August, Mrs Y complained to the Council about the lack of response. She said the sale could not proceed until the buyers know the position. They had been trying to contact the estates team since May, emailing and calling all the contact numbers. It was frustrating and distressing that no one had contacted her, and it was now becoming urgent.
- The Council passed the complaint to the estates team. Mrs Y spoke to a member of the team on 6 August. After checking the lease conditions the team member confirmed the Council would write a letter consenting to the transfer of the lease to the buyers on completion of the sale. She also confirmed the estates team would recommend the garden land leased to Mrs Y’s late parents could be sold to the buyers subject to the Council’s approval.
- The Council replied to Mrs Y’s complaint on 7 August. It said it understood the estates team had now provided the information required. It apologised for the inconvenience and said Mrs Y could escalate her complaint to stage two if she was not satisfied with its response.
- Mrs Y’s solicitor told her there were additional charges of £430 plus VAT because of the extra work in respect of the garden lease, the increase being caused in part by the Council and its estates team’s delay in responding to correspondence.
- On 26 August Mrs Y asked the Council to escalate her complaint to stage two. She referred to the additional solicitors’ costs of £400. She also wanted compensation for the unnecessary stress and upset the delays caused during the sale of her late parents’ home. The Council acknowledged her request on 27 August.
- The sale completed on 28 August.
- The Council had not provided a stage two response by February 2020 and Mrs Y brought her complaint to us. The Council told us on 21 February it was in the process of finalising its reply to Mrs Y.
- Mrs Y heard nothing from the Council. We told the Council in August we were investigating the complaint.
- On 11 August the Council sent Mrs Y its stage two complaint response. It said:
- The completion of the sale took three months from the solicitors’ request of 10 May, in line with the national average
- It and the estates team apologised for failing to escalate her complaint as requested. This was due to an oversight.
- It had reviewed the management of the estates team inbox, made changes to ensure responses are provided within 10 working days, and improved management of allocated cases.
- It had made changes to improve the monitoring of complaints about the estates team, including caseload trackers and a weekly review meeting between the Council managers and the estates team account manager.
- A financial remedy was not appropriate. It had not charged its usual surveyors and legal fees for the transaction which would have been in the order of £1,000 excluding VAT. And the buyers required an indication of the future cost of acquiring the freehold of the garden before completing the sale. This was additional work to which the estates team responded without question.
- It would usually transfer a leasehold interest by way of formal Deed of Assignment with associated costs. Its decision to proceed by way of a letter in this case was discretionary and taken to speed up the transaction and avoid potential delay and costs. It has numerous examples of cases where fees have been charged on similar transactions.
- The Council has told us, in response to our draft decision, the buyers spoke to its estates team about the cost of buying the freehold. And on 16 August 2019 Mrs Y also contacted the estates team by email asking for a valuation of the freehold, stating the buyers would not proceed without this. The estates team provided the information at short notice, without charging a fee, so the sale could complete as quickly as possible.
Analysis – was there fault by the Council causing injustice
- The Council has accepted there was fault by its estates team in failing to respond in a timely way to the request for information about the lease and then Mrs Y’s complaint. I consider these faults caused Mrs Y injustice.
- Even without the delay by the estates team in providing the information, I think it is likely the lease issues would have added some additional time to the sale process. It seems there were other matters to resolve while Mrs Y’s solicitor was wating to hear back from the estates team, and the buyers’ lenders took some time to consider the effect of the leasehold interest. My view is the estate team’s failure to provide the information in a timely way caused some, but not a significant, delay to the completion of the sale and I do not consider this caused Mrs Y significant injustice.
- But the solicitor had to spend additional time chasing the estates team for a response and updating Mrs Y and the buyers’ solicitors about the position. Mrs Y’s solicitor told her in May there would be additional costs for dealing with the lease issue. In August he told her these additional costs of £430 plus VAT were caused in part by the estates team’s delay in responding. Mrs Y has sent me details of the solicitor’s correspondence with her and the buyers’ solicitors. On the basis of the information I have seen so far, I am assessing 30% of the additional costs of £430 (amounting to £154.80 including VAT) were caused by the estate team’s delay in providing the information.
- Mrs Y also spent time chasing the estates team for a response and, as she explained in her complaint to the Council, its failure to reply caused her avoidable worry and upset.
- Mrs Y was also caused avoidable time and trouble by the estates team’s failure to provide a stage two response to her complaint.
- The Council says a financial remedy for the injustice its faults caused Mrs Y is not appropriate because it did not charge its usual costs for the transaction. I do not accept this argument because:
- There was no mention by the estates team in August 2019, when it provided the information, of any costs which would have been charged but had been waived. And in any event, they had been simply been asked by Mrs Y’s solicitor to confirm the lease could be extended or a longer lease granted. When the estates team finally addressed the question in August, they were able to provide this confirmation almost immediately.
- The estates team and the Council were happy to confirm consent to the transfer of the lease by letter. This was sufficient for the completion of the sale and there was no reference to any requirement for a formal deed of assignment at that stage.
- I understand the buyers had some discussion with the estates team about the likely cost of buying the freehold in the future. And the Council has told us it provided a valuation at Mrs Y’s request, without charging a fee. But we have no details of the extent of the work carried out, or any evidence to show Mrs Y was told in August 2019 about costs which would have been charged but had been waived.
- To remedy the injustice caused by the above faults, and within four weeks from the date of this final decision, the Council has agreed to pay Mrs Y:
- £154.80 for the additional solicitors’ costs its delays caused.
- £175 to reflect her time and trouble chasing the estates team for the information, and the worry and upset this caused her.
- £100 to reflect her time and trouble pursuing a stage two complaint response.
- I have found fault by the Council causing Mrs Y injustice. I have completed my investigation on the basis the Council will take the above action as a suitable way to remedy the injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman