Essex County Council (18 002 552)

Category : Other Categories > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 18 Dec 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman finds the Council was at fault in the way it handled communications with Miss X following her mother’s death, causing Miss X avoidable distress. The Council has agreed to apologise to Miss X and make a financial payment.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complains about the Council’s handling of an enquiry she made about delays by the Coroner in carrying out a post-mortem of her late mother, Mrs Y. Specifically, Miss X complains that the Council mistakenly contacted her sister instead of her when responding to her enquiry and then sent further correspondence intended for Miss X to her sister. Miss X remains concerned that the Council has not taken the data breaches seriously.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered the documents and information provided to me by both the Council and Miss X. I have also discussed the complaint with Miss X. I provided Miss X and the Council with an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and considered the response made.

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What I found

  1. In February 2018, Miss X contacted the Council to ask for an explanation as to why it had taken so long for the Council to carry out a post-mortem of her late mother. This delay meant that the family missed out on the opportunity to sit with Mrs Y following her death and it also meant that Mrs Y’s funeral could not be held until five weeks after her death.
  2. Following this, the Council contacted Miss X’s sister, who was listed as the next of kin to discuss Miss X’s email. The Council then, on 21 February sent Miss X an email apologising for the delay in providing a response and asking for a contact number so that it could call her.
  3. Miss X responded by expressing her dissatisfaction that the Council had contacted her sister and discussed the concerns she had raised. Miss X has explained to me that this caused tension between her and her sister.
  4. The Council responded to Miss X’s complaint in March 2018 by email. Miss X was unable to open the email attachment and requested that a letter be sent. Miss X did not receive the letter sent to her until it was resent several weeks later. In its response, the Council upheld all elements of Miss X’s complaint. It apologised for the delays in dealing with Miss X’s original enquiry and explained that a different process had been put in place to ensure similar issues did not arise in the future. In its response the Council also explained that it contacted Miss X’s sister following Miss X’s enquiry because it is usual practice to contact the next of kin to ensure that the Council can engage with other family members and to verify the relationship. The Council acknowledged that it should not have disclosed detail of the complaint with Miss X’s sister and apologised for this.
  5. Miss X explained that she was unhappy because she had explained to the Council on several occasions that she did not want correspondence by email but it continued to use this method of communication.
  6. Miss X was dissatisfied with the response and asked for her complaint to be escalated. The Council responded to Miss X’s complaint by providing some further detail on her original enquiry. It also explained that when the Council responded by letter in March 2018 it had mistakenly sent this to Miss X’s sister’s address. Miss X has explained that the Council would not previously tell her where it had sent the letter. It apologised for this and explained that both this and the telephone call to Miss X’s sister had been reported as security breaches.
  7. Miss X again requested that her complaint be escalated and explained about the impact the letter sent to her sister had had on their relationship. Miss X also explained that she was unhappy with the lack of compassion and sensitivity of some of the staff who had dealt with her complaint. Miss X also praised one of the staff member’s for how they had dealt with her complaint.
  8. The Council responded by offering a further apology. It acknowledged again that there was fault in the Council’s handling of Miss X’s correspondence. The Council said that the Data Protection elements of Miss X’s complaints were handled in accordance with the Council’s information governance processes. The Council also said that it would like to assure Miss X that her comments about staff who handled her complaint were taken seriously and that the Council would reflect and learn from Miss X’s complaint.
  9. Following this, Miss X raised her complaint with the Ombudsman.


  1. The Council has acknowledged that it was at fault when it discussed Miss X’s complaint with her sister and when it sent its complaint response to her sister’s address.
  2. In the Council’s last response to Miss X, it said that data protection elements of her complaint were handled in accordance with the Council’s information governance processes. It appears that Miss X interpreted this to mean that the Council was not acknowledging that there had been issues in the way her communications were handled. From my investigations, my understanding is that it meant that it had dealt with the issues by processing them through the council’s internal process for security breaches.
  3. The Council has explained to me that any alleged data breach raised with the Council is reported on the Council’s security incident online portal, which is then reviewed by the Council’s Information Governance team who will coordinate any necessary internal investigation. In this case it appears that the issues were as a result of human error.
  4. Given that the Council has acknowledged it was at fault. I must consider whether this fault has caused Miss X an injustice. Miss X has explained the impact the Council’s fault had on her relationship with her sister and the distress it caused her at an already difficult time.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by the Council’s fault, the Council has agreed to:
    • provide a further written apology to Miss X
    • pay Miss X £100
  2. The Council should do this within four weeks of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman finds the Council was at fault in the way it handled communications with Miss X following her mother’s death, causing Miss X avoidable distress. The Council has agreed to apologise to Miss X and make a financial payment.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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