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Southend-on-Sea City Council (20 009 892)

Category : Other Categories > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 02 Dec 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained about the Council’s service she received in relation to her marriage ceremony and about how the Council managed her complaint. The Council was at fault. There were service failures during Ms X’s ceremony and the Council did not properly manage Ms X’s complaint. This caused Ms X distress and frustration. The Council has already made service improvements to prevent the recurrence of fault. It will also pay Ms X £200 to acknowledge the distress and frustration the faults caused her.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained about the Council’s actions regarding her marriage ceremony. She said the Council was not considerate in assisting her with arranging the ceremony and it treated her and her guests poorly during the ceremony. Ms X also complained the Council’s response to her complaint did not address her concerns and it was delayed. Ms X said her marriage ceremony was ruined by the poor service she received from the Council and the Council’s response to her complaint has made her feel exhausted and upset.

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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 spoke with Ms X about her complaint.
  2. I considered the information provided by Ms X and the Council.
  3. Ms X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on the draft version of this decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

What happened

  1. In July 2019, Ms X got married and used the Council’s services to arrange and host her marriage ceremony.
  2. Ms X had arranged her marriage ceremony at short notice due to her husband’s ill health. Generally, the process of arranging a marriage ceremony requires people to give a 28-day notice period to the Council. In Ms X’s situation, the Council waived this notice period due to her husband’s ill health. Ms X was required to provide the Council with medical documentation to support her application to waive the 28-day notice period.
  3. Ms X understood her ceremony room would be decorated with a floral arrangement. Ms X had arranged for her choice of music to be played during the ceremony.
  4. Later that month after Ms X’s marriage ceremony, Ms X complained to the Council. She said:
    • the Council was not understanding of her situation when she asked for the 28-day notice period to be waived. Ms X informed the Council she had hospital letters in relation to her husband’s ill health to support the application however the Council said it required a letter from her husband’s GP instead. Ms X explained to the Council that getting a letter from a GP would take up time they did not have. Ms X said the Council’s response to this was insensitive and rude.
    • on the day of the marriage ceremony, Ms X said staff were unpleasant to her and her guests. She said she was told to wait outside before her ceremony and staff mispronounced her name, despite her correcting them previously. She said staff had made offensive comments about her guests and they were aggressive and rude.
    • there was no floral arrangement in Ms X’s ceremony room and Ms X was not able to have her music played during the ceremony.
  5. Ms X said her and her husband’s wedding day was ruined by the Council.

The Council’s response to the complaint

  1. In August 2019, the Council contacted Ms X and said it had investigated her concerns and wanted to talk to her directly about its findings. Ms X asked the Council to send her the findings of its investigation.
  2. In November 2019, Ms X contacted the Council again and said she had still not received a response regarding its investigation. The Council responded to Ms X later that month and said staff had not witnessed aggressive, inappropriate or rude behaviour towards Ms X and her guests. It said it had provided Ms X with an enhanced service as it waived the 28-day notice period and was disappointed Ms X was not happy. The Council explained to Ms X she had more guests than permitted in the ceremony room and this caused problems for the staff to coordinate her ceremony.
  3. It said Ms X was rude to staff and her husband and it said it was her choice to have her marriage ceremony at a council venue; this would not have been able to live up to Ms X’s dream wedding she previously had planned. It continued and said, “I would like to add that I do empathise you have had to deal with a very difficult circumstance and it must have been a very stressful time and due to this staff accepted your abruptness without challenging or reacting to your behaviour”. The Council asked if it could meet with her face-to-face or have a telephone discussion with her to resolve her complaint and come to a resolution. Ms X declined the offer and instead, asked for her complaint to be progressed to the next stage.
  4. The Council provided Ms X with its stage two response in February 2020. It recognised staff could have been more lenient with their approach to the required documentation for the 28-day waiver application. It explained to Ms X the Council’s venue did not have a dedicated waiting area. It apologised to Ms X for not being able to play her music during the ceremony and for not having flowers displayed in the room and said it had put processes in place to prevent this from happening again. The Council acknowledged Ms X’s complaint about the general attitude of staff and how her name was mispronounced by them and had spoken with the staff concerned. It recognised it had delayed responding to Ms X’s complaint and said this was due to staff’s lack of understanding of its complaints’ procedure. The Council referred to its initial response to Ms X and said its written communication could have been better. It said there was an absolute need for learning and development and said it had addressed this with the Officer who had originally responded to Ms X’s complaint in November 2019. The Council apologised to Ms X for the experience she had with the Council.
  5. Ms X was still not satisfied with its response and said the Council had not dealt with her complaint. She said the Council did not explain to her what it had found and how it had learned lessons from its failings.
  6. The Council investigated the complaint further and provided its final response to Ms X in September 2020. It firstly apologised to Ms X for its delay with its final response and said this was due to the additional demands it had faced from Covid-19. The Council continued and said it recognised there were faults in the service it provided to Ms X and offered Ms X a remedial payment of £100.
  7. The Council said it was satisfied it had previously addressed Ms X’s concern in relation to how the Council assisted her with waiving the 28-day notice period. It said it had spoken with the staff member in question about this and reminded them of the Council’s expectations regarding its values and behaviours. The Council said it was not appropriate to provide Ms X with more information than this as its discussion with the staff member took place in confidence but it assured her it had thoroughly addressed the matter.
  8. The Council said it could not make a finding regarding what staff said to Ms X on the day of the marriage ceremony due to a conflict of evidence which could not be resolved. It said this was because staff said they could not recall the events occurring as Ms X described.
  9. The Council said as a result of Ms X’s complaint, it was now asking people to bring in their choice of music a day ahead of the ceremony. This would allow the Council to check if the device or memory stick was compatible with its equipment and to look for an alternative arrangement if necessary.
  10. The Council explained in its previous response to Ms X its reason for not providing a floral arrangement in her ceremony room was due to the heat which had caused the flowers to wilt. It said going forward it would have an arrangement of synthetic flowers instead to prevent this from happening again.
  11. Ms X had also complained about the Council’s stage one response and said the staff member who had responded made insensitive and inaccurate comments. The Council responded to Ms X’s concerns and assured her it had thoroughly investigated and addressed the matter with the staff members in question. It recognised some of the comments made were not appropriate without explaining the wider context of the statements, not sensitive to the circumstances and the wording could have been better.
  12. The Council recognised there was a delay in its initial response to Ms X’s complaint and this was due to a lack of understanding of the complaints’ process by the staff member who managed the stage one response to Ms X’s complaint. The Council said it had addressed the matter with the staff member and it was confident they now had a better understanding of the complaints’ process.
  13. The Council concluded it had completed its investigation into Ms X’s complaint. Ms X remained unhappy and complained to us.

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Findings

  1. In relation to how the ceremony was arranged, I cannot determine what exactly was said however I recognise Ms X believed the staff member was insensitive and rude. The Council said it addressed the matter with the staff member and it assured her it had taken appropriate action. This is what we would expect the Council to do and I cannot achieve anything more by further investigation.
  2. In addition to the above, the Council informed Ms X it could not provide any more information than this due to staff confidentiality. I consider this is reasonable.
  3. Ms X was not able to play her music and she did not have a flower display in her ceremony room. This was fault. The Council recognised this was fault and took action to prevent this from happening again. It put a new process in place to ensure people are able to play their music during the ceremony. It also changed the flowers used for displays so flowers are always available in the ceremony rooms. This was appropriate.
  4. There was a delay with the Council’s stage one response. This was fault. The Council acknowledged the delay and explained to Ms X this was due to staff understanding of its complaints’ procedure. It addressed the matter with the staff member involved and was confident they now had a better understanding of the Council’s complaints’ procedure. This is what we would expect it to do.
  5. In addition to the Council’s delayed stage one response, the tone of the response was insensitive and did not address Ms X’s concerns. The Council also recognised this and has addressed it with the staff member in question.
  6. The Council recognised there was further delay with its final response to Ms X’s complaint and explained to Ms X this was due to additional demands it was facing with Covid-19. The Council apologised to Ms X.
  7. The Council responded to Ms X’s concerns about what happened on the day of her ceremony in relation to what staff said to Ms X and her guests and the attitude of staff. It said as there was a conflict of evidence, it was unable to make a finding on this part of the complaint. I have not investigated this issue further for the same reasons, as I would not be able to reach a meaningful conclusion.
  8. The Council recognised there were faults in the service and offered Ms X £100 as a remedial payment. However, Ms X suffered additional distress and frustration from the way the Council handled her complaint. The Council also said it addressed concerns with staff members involved with the complaint and made service improvements. I am satisfied it has taken appropriate action to prevent a recurrence of the faults.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of the final decision, the Council will pay Ms X £200 to acknowledge the distress and frustration the faults caused her.

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Final decision

  1. I have now completed my investigation. I have found fault causing injustice for Ms X. The Council has agreed to remedy the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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