The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complains about the Council’s actions in banning her from two of its leisure centres. The Ombudsman finds there was fault by the Council in this matter, in its failure to conduct reviews of the bans imposed and in its complaint handling. As a result. Mrs B was caused injustice for which a remedy has been agreed.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mrs B, complains the Council wrongly barred her from two sports centres, and imposed a life ban without review. This means she is without access to the facilities at these centres, impacting her health, and that she has no prospect of the ban being lifted. She would like her membership reinstated.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the actions of the Council in imposing a lifetime ban without review.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- 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)
- 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 Mrs B about her complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and took account of all the information it provided in response.
- I took account of the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
- Mrs B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Mrs B attended two Council-run leisure centres for exercise classes, gym and spa, and she found this beneficial to her health, particularly as she suffers from anxiety and depression. But in February 2019 she was excluded from both centres.
Background events in 2017
- In terms of the background to this, in January 2017 following complaints from customers and staff a meeting was held between the centre managers and Mrs B to discuss how her conduct contravened the leisure centre’s admissions policy. The outcome of this was that Mrs B was verbally banned from using one of the centres (Centre X).
- The relevant admissions policy has 24 points (or ‘rules’) and says that in extreme circumstances members or visitors who fail to comply with rules of membership, or adopt behaviour that at the Centre management’s discretion is judged to be adverse to the general harmony of the facility, will be asked to leave and may have membership of the facility withdrawn.
- Between March and November 2017 Mrs B attended another centre (Centre Y). The Council reports there were a series of incidents involving Mrs B, recorded on incident forms. Alleged behaviour included, but was not restricted to, accusations that her locker had been accessed without her permission and that staff were stealing personal items from her, and that she had been disruptive in group exercise classes. The outcome of this was that in December 2017 the Council wrote to Mrs B suspending her membership at Centre Y for a 12-month period with immediate effect.
Action in 2018 & 2019
- In September 2018 Mrs B visited Centre Y to ask to resume her membership. She was told this was not possible as the 12-month ban had not expired. The Council says Mrs B then became abusive towards its employee.
- Mrs B had complained to the Council and in its response in September 2018 the Council said staff had met with Mrs B before and after the exclusion was imposed, originally to seek to moderate her behaviour and subsequently to explain the decision. It said the decision to exclude Mrs B had not been taken lightly.
- In February 2019 Mrs B made another complaint, saying she would like to be able to use the facilities at the two centres from which she had been excluded. The Council in its response said it felt Mrs B’s actions had given it little choice but to take the decision to exclude her from the two centres, and the exclusion would continue.
- Mrs B contacted the Council to discuss this and she was advised how to escalate the matter to the next stage of the complaints procedure. Evidence shows that she telephoned on 14 February 2019 and gave details to a manager about why she did not agree with the first stage reply she had received, and the Council noted that this was to be dealt with at the next stage. However, that did not happen, and instead Mrs B was advised again how to escalate the matter. As she did not make contact again at this time, the matter was not progressed. I will return to this matter later in this statement.
- In March 2019, the Council says Mrs B was abusive towards a member of leisure centre staff, and visited a member of that person’s family at his place of work and was also abusive to them. Internal advice was sought in light of this at the Council about appropriate steps to safeguard both customers and staff.
- The Council received further correspondence from Mrs B on 16 September 2019. It responded on 25 September 2019, noting a previous complaint about the matter had been made and a first stage response issued on 5 February, but that while Mrs B had been advised about escalating the matter to the next stage she had not done so. It said she could now request the next stage is she wanted: Mrs B replied, and the Council issued its response on 12 November. In this it noted Mrs B wanted her membership reinstated but that the decision to exclude her had followed ‘a number of recorded incidents over several years and that she had been advised about acceptable behaviour on a number of occasions but had continued to ignore advice offered. It said the ban would ‘remain permanent’.
- Councils are entitled to restrict access to facilities or buildings, if this is done with good reason and officers have followed and applied the proper process. The council should explain its reasons for a ban in writing and the affected person should be given an opportunity to appeal a ban. The council should also explain when it will review the ban. The Ombudsman generally considers that councils should not impose open-ended bans with no meaningful review to reflect possible changes in circumstances. Bans should be reviewed within a reasonable period, and if the council decides a ban should stay in place, it should explain why it has decided not to lift it.
- Council staff in this case have referred to Mrs B’s behaviour having had a significant impact on them and on other users of the leisure facilities. The ban was effectively imposed from 2017 and initially was described as a ‘suspension’ for a 12-month period. In later correspondence, in 2019, the Council referred to it as a ‘permanent ban’. I have seen no evidence that Mrs B was given any information about how to appeal against or seek a review of the ban at any stage, or about when these matters would be reviewed.
- The failure to provide Mrs B with relevant information and to schedule and conduct reviews of the ban were fault.
- In respect of the Council’s handling of Mrs B’s complaint, as noted at paragraph 17 above she had given information about the reasons for her dissatisfaction with the first-stage response on the telephone in February 2019. It would have been best practice for the Council to progress it to the next stage based on that information. It could have written to her confirming the reasons for dissatisfaction she had given over the telephone and if necessary asking her at the same time her to confirm what she desired as an outcome of her complaint, although was clear that she wanted the ban to be reviewed and the question of desired outcome had presumably been a consideration earlier in the process, at the first stage of the complaint procedure. But the Council did not progress the complaint until further contact was made in October 2019. That was fault.
Injustice to Mrs B
- I cannot conclude that the failure to review the bans imposed meant that Mrs B was deprived of access to the leisure facilities at the Council’s centres, because it could be that a properly conducted review not have led to a different outcome: it may have led to continuation of the ban. However, she has been denied the opportunity to have the matter properly reconsidered. In addition, she was put to some avoidable time and trouble in pursuing the matter and her complaint about it.
- In recognition of the injustice identified above, I recommended that within four weeks of the date of the decision on this complaint, the Council:
- Issues Mrs B with a formal written apology;
- Pays her £150; and
- Conducts a full review of the ban, keeping a full record of the consideration given to the matter and notifying her of the outcome. The Council should also undertake to review the matter at least annually thereafter if any ban remains in place.
- The Council has agreed to my recommendations.
- I have completed my investigation on the basis set out above.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- For the reason set out in paragraph 6, I did not investigate the Council’s action in imposing the original ban in 2017. Mrs B could have complained to us sooner about that and there are no grounds for me to exercise discretion to investigate it now.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman