The Housing Ombudsman has made two findings of severe maladministration for Southwark Council after a mutual exchange was denied when a resident was falsely accused of vandalising his own kitchen. Details of a service charges were also provided three years after it should have.

In Case A (202210731), the Ombudsman found severe maladministration for the landlord’s handling of a request for a copy of the service charge final bill after major works.

The landlord’s policy says the resident has a right to request a written summary of any charges and the landlord should provide this within a month or six months of the end of the period to which the summary relates.

The Ombudsman found that when the resident first requested a summary, the defect liability period had not ended and therefore an invoice would not have been ready. The landlord informed the resident about this but could have been clearer about when the information requested would be ready.

In the coming months, the resident asked for an update on two occasions. They only got a response 18 months later and when it did so, the landlord said the information wasn’t ready. This delay was ‘unreasonable’ and response ‘inadequate’, especially as the defect liability period had passed by over a year.

The resident complained that the list of works was not detailed enough and that it was not clear what works had been carried out. The final invoice should have been sent straight after the defect liability period ended. However, the landlord sent it three years later.

The landlord said the delay was due to it awaiting information from other teams internally. This is not an adequate explanation for a delay of this length. The landlord should have efficient processes in place to ensure effective communication between teams so it can fulfil its legal obligations to provide information on service charges to leaseholders upon request.

There was further maladministration for the landlord’s complaint handling after delays to its complaint responses, including seven months of delay in its stage two response.

The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident, pay £900 in compensation and provide a clear detailed list of the works carried out.

In Case B (202207291), the Ombudsman found severe maladministration after the landlord declined the resident’s mutual exchange application on the basis that he was responsible for vandalising his kitchen.

In the landlord’s policy, a resident’s home swap cannot be unreasonably withheld, but any outstanding repairs that are the resident’s responsibility must be completed before any move can take place.

Due to issues with the kitchen floor, the landlord’s contractors removed the kitchen cabinets to do works. However, they did not replace them. When the landlord inspected the home a month later, it concluded the resident had vandalised his own kitchen. Despite their own repairs log showing the removal by the contractors.

When suggesting a resident has acted anti-socially or unlawfully, the landlord must provide evidence to support that allegation. It did not provide clear reasoning or evidence to show that the resident ever removed his kitchen units.

Therefore, when the landlord dismissed the resident’s mutual exchange request, it was not based on tangible evidence that he had vandalised his kitchen, according to the Ombudsman. It was also ‘concerning’ that the landlord made serious accusations without the necessary records to support its allegations. The impact on the resident was ‘serious’. He was accused of a criminal act, asked to pay for repairs that were not his obligation and denied a mutual exchange of his home.

The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident, pay £1,000 in compensation and both make repairs to the kitchen and reconsider the mutual exchange request.

In its learning from these cases, the landlord said it is undertaking a full review of its complaints procedures and has increased senior management oversight on schemes where final bills are over 12 months old or over 1 month beyond the defect’s liability period.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “In both cases, the landlord failed to act within its own policies with life-impacting effects on two separate households.

“The landlord missed several opportunities in both cases to resolve the issue and in the case of the mutual exchange complaint, made matters worse by making accusations without evidence.

“At the heart of both cases is effective information management. Our Spotlight report on Knowledge and Information Management detailed the importance of having good records. These cases show the importance of not only having records but using them effectively to make evidence-based decisions.”

In all cases of severe maladministration, the Ombudsman invites the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Southwark Council said: We are working actively to improve our customer services and complaints processes, and in these cases as soon as the Ombudsman raised them with us, we made immediate changes to prevent such failures happening again.

“These include:

  • Our teams now review all works and repairs history when considering mutual exchange applications
  • We have increased Senior Management oversight of schemes where final bills are over 12 months old or over 1 month beyond the defects liability period, with updates provided to leaseholders and the team processing the final bills.
  • A thorough in-depth end to end review of the complaints process is underway, with a renewed focus on customer communication, quality and timeliness at the heart of each investigation
  • As a result of these findings a full and thorough training programme is being implemented to ensure our officers are aware of the high standards our customers deserve when making a complaint through our complaints process. This training will also cover the investigation process. Ensuring that all the facts are established prior to any response being provided.

“We take all complaints very seriously and thank the ombudsman for highlighting these cases in which we have failed our residents. We are working hard to improve our housing repairs, customer services and complaints processes, and hope that our residents are already starting to see a difference.”