The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs J complains that the Council threatened her with legal action after she posted comments online. While we have found some shortcomings in how the Council acted, we have not found evidence of serious fault. The Ombudsman cannot therefore challenge the Council’s actions.
- The complainant, whom I refer to here as Mrs J, is dissatisfied with the Council’s response to her complaint, about a letter she received, warning her about her behaviour.
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)
- 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 this investigation, I have:
- considered Mrs J’s complaint and the Council’s responses; and
- spoke to Mrs J about her complaint.
- I also sent a draft version of this decision to both parties for their comments.
What I found
- Mrs J worked for a number of years, as a volunteer for several local community groups. As a result, she worked alongside a number of Council Officers.
- In June 2018, the Council sent Mrs J a letter, in which it said she had made unacceptable comments about Council Officers, in online correspondence. It also said that she had behaved in an unacceptable manner towards a Council Officer during a face-to-face meeting.
- The Council said that if Mrs J’s behaviour continued, the Council may consider options, which could include applying for a Court Injunction against her.
- In Mrs J’s complaint, she denied acting in an unacceptable manner at a face-to-face meeting. Mrs J also said that she had not received any prior warning about her online correspondence, and that the threat of legal action was disproportionate. Mrs J also said that she was now unsure what she could or could not say online, and this made her feel that she was at risk of injunction.
- In responding to Mrs J’s complaint, the Council said that there was insufficient evidence that the incident during the face-to-face meeting had or had not occurred. It therefore upheld this element of Mrs J’s complaint, and apologised for including this in the letter.
- In their responses, the Council says that it understood that Mrs J had been asked by its Officers, not to post negative comments online. However, Mrs J disputes this.
- The Council acknowledged that Mrs J may not be aware what it constitutes to be an unacceptable correspondence, and it would therefore notify her before taking any legal action, giving her the opportunity to rectify it.
- The Council investigated the allegation, that Mrs J acted in an unacceptable manner during a face-to-face meeting, and concluded that, because of a lack of evidence, it should not have been included in its letter. While I consider this was a shortcoming by the Council, I do not consider the incident was so serious as to make a formal finding of fault, particularly as already taken appropriate action by apologising to Mrs J for this. I consider this to be a suitable remedy.
- I recognise Mrs J’s view that the Council could have contacted her in a less formal way, about her online correspondence. However, the more formal method it chose was an approach the Council was entitled to take, and as a result, I find no fault with this decision.
- I have completed my investigation, finding no evidence of fault with the Council’s actions.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman