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Watchdog raps council staff

PUBLISHED: 12:50 17 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:05 23 August 2010

A WATCHDOG has highlighted a complaint against over zealous and intimidating council officers who wrongly took someone to court. The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) found Gravesham council at fault for taking a lodger to court, who was eventually reim

A WATCHDOG has highlighted a complaint against "over zealous and intimidating" council officers who wrongly took someone to court.

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) found Gravesham council at fault for taking a lodger to court, who was eventually reimbursed £3,784 in legal costs and £1,000 for unnecessary stress.

It forms part of a report published by the LGO dealing with 21 complaints directed at Gravesham council for the year up to March 2009.

Of the complaints where the LGO found against the council, three led to £5,400 in compensation being paid to aggrieved parties.

The lodger, who was a council officer, was asked to vacate a council home within the notice period.

The Ombudsman found: "Officers were over zealous and intimidating in their dealings with the complainant who was needlessly compelled to appear in

court.

"When the council did accept it should not have issued legal proceedings and withdrew these, it failed to provide any reasons for doing so and refused to reimburse the complainant's legal costs.

"In its comments on my proposals for settling this complaint, the council said it has already reviewed and restructured the service area in question and that the officers concerned had left its employment.

"Although the council accepted my findings of fault, at first it questioned my suggestion that it reimburse the complainant's legal costs, arguing that they should have pursued these through the courts.

"However, in my view the complainant and their solicitor had been unaware of the reasons why the council had withdrawn the case and could not, therefore, have been confident of an order for costs being made in their favour."

When this was put to the council it agreed to meet the legal costs of £3,784. The council also accepted that the complainant's health had been affected by the matter and paid £1,000 for distress caused.

Two other settlements involved anti-social behaviour issues.

The Ombudsman concluded: "I considered that in both cases the complainants had had their expectations unreasonably raised for about a year in relation to measures the council was able to take to deal with antisocial behaviour.

"There was also a delay of about seven months in seeking advice from other service areas about separate but related neighbour nuisance."

The council agreed to pay compensation of £200 to each for and £125 for delay in seeking advice.

The average period complaints were dealt with was 24 days, down from 28 in the previous year.

A Gravesham council spokesperson said: "It is important to put the level of complaints into perspective.

"The council deals with about 41,000 council tax accounts and 2,200 business rate accounts and deals with 500,000 telephone contacts a year.

The Ombudsman had 21 complaints and investigated three. Two of those were settled by the council and only one attracted criticism for 'over zealous' actions. It is still regrettable that that one case was not dealt with satisfactorily and we are sorry that it was not handled well.

"However, the Ombudsman letter recognises we reviewed and restructured the service area in question and compliments us on our overall good performance in complaints handling and effective liaison with the Ombudsman's office.

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