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Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (20 008 800)

Category : Other Categories > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 29 Jun 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council failed to take adequate steps to find a family member while it was arranging his brother’s funeral. We have found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered these matters so have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to as Mr X, says the Council did not contact any family members when it arranged his brother’s (Mr Y) funeral. Mr X also says the Council did not contact him or answer his questions. Mr X wants the Council to answer every question he raised.
  2. Mr X says he and other family members have been caused distress as they could not attend Mr Y’s funeral.
  3. Mr X has since become involved in managing Mr Y’s affairs. Mr X says rent is accruing on the flat and the Council has failed to send him copy of the invoice for the funeral.
  4. Ms X also complains the Council did not tell him it had found Mr Y’s address book, which contained the addresses of family members, or try to contact them. Mr X says he was only aware of the address book when the Council sent him Mr Y’s documents in October 2020. Mr X complains the Council was wrong to rely on the comments made by Mr Y’s neighbour about his relatives.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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 read the papers submitted by Mr X and spoken to him about the complaint. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting documents it provided.
  2. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

The law – funerals

  1. The Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 (the Act) says the Council must arrange a funeral when there is nobody else to make the arrangements. The Council has duties under the Act to ascertain if the deceased had indicated a preference for burial rather than cremation and to clarify if there are likely to be funds available to pay for the funeral.

Events leading to the complaint

  1. Mr X’s brother died in early 2020. Mr Y had a different surname to Mr X. Neither the police nor the coroner could locate a family contact for Mr Y. The coroner asked the Council to arrange a funeral.
  2. The Council tried to find some relatives. The Council visited Mr Y’s flat in April 2020 to carry out its duties under the Act. This was to see if there was any indication whether Mr Y wanted to be buried or cremated, and to clarify the situation with his funds. The Council says when conducting such investigations, it will take note of any other evidence in relation to possible next of kin where a coroner or investigating police may have overlooked such evidence. But the responsibility for identifying next of kin lies with the coroner and not the Council.
  3. On visiting the flat officers found nothing to show Mr Y was in touch with any relatives. When discussing the complaint with me Mr X confirmed he had not been in contact with Mr Y for many years, and neither had other family members.
  4. The officers spoke to a neighbour who had known Mr Y for about 15 years. The neighbour said he was unaware of any relatives and had not seen anyone visit Mr Y. The Council says officers realised the coroner was under pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to double check Mr Y’s health records. In May 2020, an officer contacted Mr Y’s GP and the hospital, he had recently been admitted to, but Mr Y had not provided details for a next of kin. The Council confirms it was not its role to do this double check.
  5. The officers did find a passport for Mr Y which had expired in 1994. The passport included some contact details, but officers decided they were not relevant as the passport was so old.
  6. The Council arranged a cremation for Mr Y. It did not hold a funeral service due to the COVID-19 pandemic and because no next of kin had been found. In June Mr X found out that his brother had died and contacted the Council.
  7. Mr X spoke to an officer in June 220 who explained what had happened and the Council had been unable to trace any family. Mr X complained the Council had not done enough to find family members. He said the brother named on the passport still lived at the same address. Mr X put many questions to the Council and made subject access requests.
  8. The Council explained what it had done to try to find some family. It answered many of Mr X’s questions. It explained the duty to find relatives rested with the police and coroner but, as part of its duty to arrange the funeral, it had tried to find a relative. It apologised for not contacting the brother named on the passport but said, in the context of there being no other personal information in the flat, and the age of the passport, it decided it was not relevant to the current search for relatives.

The Council’s response to Mr X’s further complaints

  1. The Council says the officer spoke to Mr X in June 2020 about the Council’s investigation. The officer does not recall looking through the address book in any detail. The notes of the telephone call state the officer advised Mr X about the address book. But there was no mention of a person with Mr Y’s surname and no mention of brother/sister. The Council says the officer’s notes show the address book was found in April 2020 and Mr X was aware of the address book in June 2020.
  2. The Council says it is not the responsible authority for identifying a next of kin. It says it has found where no next of kin is mentioned on medical records and no will is found that contact with possible relatives from old records often causes distress as such people are usually estranged.
  3. The Council confirms it did not rely on the information from Mr Y’s neighbour about next of kin as it was a passing conversation. The Council says it relied on information provided by the coroner as the person with responsibility for identifying a next of kin.
  4. The Council says it received the invoice from the funeral director but did not pay it. The invoice was sent to Mr Y’s bank as it confirmed it would pay the invoice from funds in Mr Y’s account. The Council confirms this is normal practice as local authorities are obliged to seek the costs of funerals through funds in any estate. Mr X was told about this when officers gave him the details of the funeral director so he could collect Mr Y’s ashes.
  5. The Council confirms it did not send an invoice to Mr X or ask him to contact the funeral director to pay the account. It understands Mr X spoke to the funeral director and agreed to settle the account. So, Mr X needs to contact the funeral director for a copy of the invoice.
  6. In responding to my enquiries on the complaint the Council says it does not have a policy for public health burials as it follows the requirements of the Act. The Council considers it would be helpful if it publishes a policy statement on public health burials. This would make it clear what is the minimum action it is required to do by law. The Council says austerity measures over the years means it only provides services, including public health burials to the level the law requires. So, it no longer has capacity to offer discretionary services that provide more than the minimum required.

My assessment

  1. The Council’s duty in this case was to arrange Mr Y’s funeral as there appeared to be no family or friends to make the arrangements. As part of this duty, it tried to find some family but was unsuccessful. The Council could have contacted the person named on the expired passport, but it made a judgement call the passport was not relevant. With hindsight this decision may appear wrong, but it was a judgement decision made at the time which does not amount to administrative fault. I have read all the complaint replies, and notes of the Council’s actions, and the Council made a thorough attempt to try to locate relatives and carry out Mr Y’s wishes as far as possible.
  2. The Council says the officers found the address book, gave it a brief glance but did not see anyone listed with the same surname as Mr Y. Mr X has provided a copy of Mr Y’s address book which shows some entries with the same surname as Mr Y. It is unfortunate the Council did not see the entries. However, the information was the same as that listed in Mr Y’s passport. So, I consider on the balance of probabilities, that even if the Council had seen the information, it would not have acted on it as it had decided the information was not relevant. I cannot say this was fault by the Council as it was again a judgement decision made at the time.
  3. Mr X says the Council has not responded and has not answered all his questions which include information about the police investigation. The letters show the Council has provided comprehensive responses to Mr X and provided responses to his subject access requests. Mr X may feel the Council has not answered every question, but it has advised Mr X it was not involved in the police investigation so it cannot provide that information.
  4. It is unfortunate Mr X has rent accruing on Mr Y’s flat, but it is nothing to do with the Council because Mr Y was a private tenant. The Council also is not involved with obtaining a copy of the invoice from the funeral directors. Mr X needs to contact the funeral directors direct as he agreed to pay invoice from Mr Y’s funds. Or to contact Mr Y’s bank if it paid the invoice.

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Final decision

  1. I am completing my investigation. I have found no evidence of fault by the Council in the way it dealt with Mr Y’s funeral arrangements and tried to contact family members.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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