The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council wrongly sold land belonging to his parent’s estate and then caused delays transferring the land back. The delays held up the sale of the house and meant Mr X had to pay more council tax. The Council admitted fault for its error in transferring Mr X’s parents land to a housing association. It agreed to provide an improved remedy. We did not find the Council at fault for delays transferring the land back to Mr X.
- Mr X complained the Council wrongly sold land belonging to his parent’s estate and then caused delays transferring the land back. The delays held up the sale of the house and meant Mr X had to pay more council tax.
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
- As part of the investigation, I have considered the following:
- The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
- Documents provided by the Council and its comments in response to my enquiries.
What I found
- Mr X’s parents bought a parcel of land joining their own from the Council in December 1980. Unbeknown to Mr X’s parents, the Council mistakenly included the land on plans when it made a large transfer of housing stock to a housing association in 2003. That resulted in the housing association being registered as owner of part of Mr X’s parents land with Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR).
- Mr X inherited his parents’ house and in December 2019 he decided to sell it. He accepted an offer for the house in January 2020, and his solicitor prepared draft contracts for the sale in February. Also in February, Mr X’s solicitor (the solicitor) discovered part of the land belonging to Mr X’s parents was registered to a housing association after they bought land from the Council.
- The solicitor contacted the housing association, who wanted a fee to transfer the land into Mr X’s name. The solicitor contacted the Council on 28 February and asked it to pay to correct its error. The Council agreed to transfer the title to the land to Mr X and to meet the costs. On 12 March, the Council sent draft transfer documents to the solicitor for approval.
- The Council received signed documents back from the solicitor on 18 March and sent them to the housing association on 2 April. The Council then updated the solicitor on to say officers were working from home due to the national COVID-19 lockdown. It also said housing association staff were working from home and could take longer to return the documents.
- The Council received the signed transfer documents back from the housing association at its offices on 5 May.
- The solicitor asked for an update on 20 May. The case officer explained they were on leave following the death of their mother, but they would attend the office the following week to collect the transfer documents and send them to HMLR.
- The case officer registered the transfer documents online with HMLR on 28 May. They also sent a copy to the solicitor.
- Mr X complained to the Council on 31 May. He criticised the Council for not registering the land into his parents’ name when it sold the land to them in 1980, and for selling the land again to a housing association. He said his solicitor was trying to correct the matter with the Council, but it remained unresolved. Mr X said this resulted in added legal fees and a council tax bill for the house he should not have incurred. He asked the Council to resolve the transfer urgently, pay his added legal fees, waive the council tax bill, and pay him £600 compensation for stress.
- The solicitor contacted the Council on 5 June. They had tried to expedite the transfer with HMLR but faced problems with the reference. The solicitor asked the Council to request HMLR expedite the transfer because it was holding up the sale of Mr X’s house.
- The Council wrote to HMLR the same day. It said the incorrect registration happened due to a mistake on a stock transfer plan, and the transfer was to correct that mistake.
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint on 12 June. It said it lodged the transfer documents with HMLR on 28 May and did all it could to correct its error. It was now in the hands of HMLR. The Council said it dealt with the transfer in a timely manner, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It said it would not charge Mr X for its legal work and offered £200 towards his own solicitor’s legal fees to recognise its error from 2003. It did not agree to waive council tax on the house or pay £600 compensation.
- The solicitor asked the Council for an update on 19 and 20 June. The Council replied on 24 June. It said HMLR asked for evidence of the need to speed up the transfer. The Council asked the solicitor to provide this. The Council sent the evidence to HMLR on 29 June.
- Mr X was not happy with the Council’s complaint response. He wrote to the Council on 30 June, accusing it of failing in its duty to register the land to his parents when it sold land to them. He said he could show his house would have sold before March 2020 if not for the Council’s error. As a result, Mr X said his parent’s estate would be out of pocket once added legal fees were calculated. In addition, he said the Council did not tell HMLR to expedite the transfer. He said his solicitor had to ask the Council to do this. He was unhappy the Council charged council tax for an empty house that would have sold before the national lockdown if not for the Council’s error.
- HMLR completed the transfer of the land to Mr X on 27 July.
- The Council sent its final complaint response on 30 July. It said the land Mr X’s parents bought was not registered with HMLR as the sale predated compulsory registration. It said Mr X’s parents’ solicitor could have registered the land if they wished. It apologised for its error in selling his parents land to a housing association, and for any inconvenience caused. However, it said it made a fair and proportionate offer.
- The sale of Mr X’s parents’ house concluded on 18 August.
- Mr X brought his complaint to the Ombudsman on 9 October 2020 because he wanted compensation for the distress he suffered. He also wanted a refund of the council tax he paid while the sale of his house was delayed.
Response to my enquiries
- The Council told me all officers had to work from home after the national COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. It told Mr X’s solicitor that may cause delays. There was a delay waiting for the housing association to sign relevant paperwork. There was a further delay because the case officer was on leave after a family bereavement. The Council also said there was a reduced Royal Mail service, and the legal process takes time.
- The Council said it asked HMLR to expedite the matter. HMLR asked for evidence, which the Council had to request from Mr X’s solicitor. The process at HMLR is outside the Council’s control.
- The Council is satisfied it dealt with the transfer in a timely manner, in the circumstances. It did not charge Mr X for the work of its legal department. It also offered Mr X £200 to recognise the error it made in 2003.
- The Council admitted fault for mistakenly transferring the land to a housing association after selling it to Mr X’s parents.
- Mr X is unhappy with how long it took the Council to arrange the transfer to correct the error. He told me the solicitor sent signed paperwork to the Council on 17 March, but the Council did not act on it until 28 May. The Council disputes this. The evidence I have seen shows the Council sent transfer documents to the housing association promptly and responded to update requests from the solicitor. It explained there could be delays but it completed the transfer documents within a reasonable timeframe.
- While I appreciate Mr X feels the Council could have dealt with the transfer quicker, I have not seen evidence the Council was responsible for any significant delays. I have taken account of the fact Council officers were mainly working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted collection and posting of documents.
- The housing association was responsible for a delay of about a month returning the documents. That was frustrating for Mr X, but was not the fault of the Council. The housing association are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- The Council could have been more proactive, but it did chase the housing association the same day the solicitor asked for an update. The solicitor was in a better position to know how urgently the transfer needed to complete, but it did not impress that on the Council until later. In the circumstances I do not consider the Council was at fault.
- The case officer took leave due to a bereavement. That resulted in a delay of about three weeks. I appreciate Mr X may disagree, but I do not consider that was significant in the overall scheme of the transfer process. While the Council could have asked another officer to complete the transfer in their absence, I am mindful of the fact the Council’s resources were stretched in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Mr X is unhappy the Council did not ask HMLR to complete the transfer urgently. As above, the solicitor did not communicate the urgency to the Council until after it sent documents to HMLR. Once the Council was made aware, it asked HMLR to expedite the transfer. I do not consider the Council was at fault.
- Mr X said the Council’s error and delays stopped him completing the sale of his house, and meant he incurred council tax charges.
- As above, I do not consider the Council was responsible for any significant delays. However, on the evidence seen, it is likely the sale would have concluded sooner if not for the Council’s initial error in 2003. That added an obstacle which otherwise would not have been present. The difficulty is I cannot say when the sale would have concluded if the error had not occurred. There are no certainties with house sales, and I cannot say what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the timescale. I appreciate Mr X feels sure the sale would have concluded before the national COVID-19 lockdown, but I have not seen definitive evidence of that. There is therefore no basis on which I can ask the Council to waive the council tax fees.
- The Council arranged the transfer at no cost to Mr X. It also offered £200 towards his added legal fees, which was correct because Mr X would not have incurred those added fees if not for the Council’s error. I understand Mr X refused this offer.
- I have considered whether there is any remaining injustice which the Council should remedy.
- Mr X asked the Council to make a payment for his time and trouble. Mr X employed a solicitor who communicated with the Council. The Council was open about its mistake and agreed to put things right. I therefore do not consider Mr X was put to added time and trouble.
- As above, the Council’s error in 2003 created an obstacle which impacted the sale process. While I cannot say the extent of the impact, it did cause Mr X added frustration and distress which the Council should remedy.
- Within four weeks of my final decision, the Council agreed to apologise to Mr X and repeat its offer of £200 towards his legal fees. It also agreed to pay Mr X £200 to recognise the added distress its error caused.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council admitted fault for its error in transferring Mr X’s parents land to a housing association. It agreed to provide an improved remedy. We did not find the Council at fault for delays transferring the land back to Mr X.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman