East Sussex County Council has apologised for causing ‘unnecessary distress’ to a family seeking support for their mother’s nursing care.
The case revolves around whether the council should have provided financial support for the family of a woman – known as Mrs M – after she was moved into a care home in 2015.
The apology follows the publication of a report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman – an organisation which investigates complaints made against local authorities.
In its report, the ombudsman found delays in the council’s assessment of the case had caused ‘unnecessary distress’ to the family and recommended it look again at what support it should give and pay £300 compensation to Mrs M’s son.
An East Sussex County Council spokesman said: “We have accepted – and are in the process of implementing – all the recommendations of the ombudsman in relation to this case.
“We have also apologised to the family for any distress or inconvenience caused.”
The contribution a council makes to care home costs are based on a financial assessment. If someone has less than £23,500 in assets they become eligible for financial support from the council.
This financial assessment normally includes the value of someone’s home, with families expected to sell a property to fund the cost of a care home place.
However the value of a property cannot be included in this assessment if a spouse, partner or disabled family member uses it as their main or only home. This is known as a ‘mandatory property disregard’.
The intention behind this rule is to prevent someone from having to sell their home in order to pay a loved one’s care home fees.
According to the ombudsman Mrs M’s was first assessed in July 2015. The council found she would need long term nursing home care but had more than £23,500 of assets, meaning she would need to self-fund her care.
In September 2016, however, Mrs M’s family requested the council carry out a new financial assessment, pointing out that her son – referred to in the ombudsman’s report as Mr C – was living in the property and was a ‘qualifying relative’.
Replying to the request in October, the council said Mr C did not live in the property when Mrs M entered the care home so it was not eligible for a disregard.
In a letter in November, Mr C’s sister challenged this view, arguing that the council should make its assessment from the date Mrs M became eligible for support from the council (at which time Mr C was living in the property) not from the day she entered the care home.
In her letter, Mr C’s sister also argued Mr C had always considered the property as his main residence, using it as his home base while living elsewhere for work.
According to the ombudsman it took more than three months for the council to respond to this letter, telling the family it had referred the matter to its legal department.
Mr C’s sister wrote to the council again in late February, saying the family was becoming increasingly distressed as Mrs M’s savings were running out.
In March the council changed its assessment following legal advice, agreeing the family did qualify for a mandatory disregard after all.
But the case was complicated as Mr C had moved abroad with his wife for several months during this period.
In correspondence with the council in March 2017, the family maintained this was a temporary move and Mr C intended to return to the home in the near future.
In light of this, however, the council took the decision to remove the property disregard again, as the home was not considered to be Mr C’s main residence.
The ombudsman said the council had failed to properly explain this in letters to Mr C at the time.
Mr C appealed against this decision and the council decided to give the family a discretionary disregard instead after the appeal was completed. This would, however, only apply from 17 June 2017 – the date on which Mr C had returned from overseas.
As a result the family would be responsible for paying Mrs M’s care home costs between 17 November 2016 and 17 June 2017.
Mrs M passed away in January 2018.
In its report, the ombudsman said: “There was an unreasonable delay in the way in which the council responded to the letter of 14 November 2016.
“This caused the family unnecessary distress at a time of uncertainty and Mrs M’s bank account decreasing by £3,400 a month.
“The council has apologised, on several occasions, for the significant delays in completing the financial assessment and for any distress this may have caused.”
The ombudsman’s report concludes that the council should apologise to Mr C for the distress caused and reassess its decision on the mandatory disregard.
It should also revise the date on which Mrs M became eligible for financial support from the council, the ombudsman said..
The ombudsman also recommend council officers receive extra training on how to write decision letters.