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The Ombudsman – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In the latest article from Ombudsman Services: Property, Sector Expert Nicolette Granite looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of typical complaint types.

The Good – A well-handled complaint

During February and March there was an interruption to the Complainant’s water supply. They stated this caused water pressure surges, which damaged their toilet’s flushing system. They explained the toilet was constantly flushing, which led to the toilet system bursting and flooding the apartment.

The local water board investigated the matter and discovered there was water within the network; therefore it was not a network issue. The Company’s maintenance team arrived on site along with the water board inspector. It was confirmed there was an issue with the private pumps feeding the development.

The Complainant stated that as the managing agent was responsible for the upkeep of the private pump, it should be responsible for the damage caused. The Complainant wanted a refund of the costs they had incurred repairing their toilet flushing system and the redecoration costs incurred from the flood. The Complainant stated they had experienced a poor level of customer service as the agent had not investigated their issues or responded to their complaint.

The Company issued its Complaint Handling Procedure to the Complainant once it was notified of the issues.

The Company explained its role as managing agent to the Complainant, that it managed the development on behalf of its client – the freeholder. The Company carried out investigations in order to establish whether the fault with the private pumps caused the issue within the Complainant’s demised flat. The Company spoke to the contractor who carried out works to the pump and they advised neither the work nor disruption to the pump would have caused a problem in an individual flat. The contractor stated there was built in pressure release valves to stop excessive water being distributed to individual apartments. The information was provided to the block insurer, who concluded a claim could not be made and there was no direct link between the serving of the pumps and the leak in the Complainant’s apartment.

The Company carried out further investigations and commissioned a separate report. This report concluded there would be no violent surges when the pumps are disrupted due to a system of pressure reducing valves. The report also could not find a link between the disruption to the pump and the leak in the Complainant’s apartment.

The Company fed back its findings to the Complainant and invited them to obtain their own report, which they did not do.

The outcome: The ombudsman accepted it was coincidental the two events happened simultaneously but there was no evidence to conclude one event was the root cause of the other event. As no direct link could be found, the ombudsman could not recommend the Company cover the Complainant’s costs. It was also considered the Company had reasonably investigated the Complainant’s concerns and responded to the complaint in an appropriate and timely manner. The ombudsman required no award or remedy.

The Bad

The Complainant raised concerns with the Company about a family who had moved onto the estate and they were contravening the lease by leaving bikes and other items in the communal hallway. They added the family erected a satellite dish, went against parking restrictions and kept animals in the property. The family were tenants and rented the property from the leasehold owner of the flat. The Complainant stated they raised several complaints to the Company but it did not take any action which changed the behaviour of the family and the matter was unresolved.

The Complainant stated they contacted the Company by phone on several occasions to report the issues but when nothing changed, they started writing letters. The Complainant advised the Company drafted a letter to the tenant regarding the satellite dish but failed to address the other concerns raised. The Complainant maintained some of their written contacts were not responded to.

The Company provided copies of the letters it had written to the leaseholder, reminding them of the covenants of the lease and the behaviours that were expected from their tenant.

The outcome: The ombudsman accepted the Company had no relationship with the tenant and as such what action they could take was limited. The ombudsman was satisfied the Company had taken appropriate action by contacting the leaseholder, who could in turn remind their tenant of what is expected of them. Whilst the Company’s powers were limited to resolve the nuisance behaviour, it was still expected to respond to the Complainant’s concerns and abide by its own Complaint Handling Procedure. It was evident from the letters and emails provided that some of the Complainant’s concerns were not responded to. Furthermore, there were long delays in the Company issuing responses. It was clear from the timeline of events the Company had failed to follow its own Complainant Handling Procedure and it was considered a shortfall in customer service had occurred.

Whilst no award or remedy was required in relation to the nuisance tenant, a nominal goodwill payment was recommended to reflect the shortfall in customer service that had occurred.

The Ugly

The Complainant stated that following a potential fire in the building it was discovered that a key was required to open the fire door. They explained that upon investigation it was discovered the Company had been aware for some time that the fire door required a key to open it but it failed to act. The Company explained the fire door had been raised as a medium risk in a previous health and safety fire risk assessment. The Company stated it obtained quotes for various works, which were undertaken but the contractor failed to quote for the fire door lock. The Company stated it chased the contractor on numerous occasions and after the incident of the potential fire, the required work was completed.

The ombudsman noted the fire risk assessment recorded the fire door needed to be changed from a key operated lock to a non-key operated lock and it was given a grade 3 timescale (work to be completed within 2-4 months). However, the ombudsman was provided with previous years’ fire risk assessments and the fire door had been raised on each assessment for several years, with no action being taken. Furthermore, internal email correspondence from within the Company indicated it was aware of the outstanding issue with the fire door but had failed to act on it. The ombudsman considered the delay was unacceptable and a clear shortfall in service.

The Complainant stated the Company had failed to complete site inspections. They provided a copy of the management agreement which detailed periodic inspections were required. The Company could not provide any evidence to confirm the inspections had been undertaken in line with the agreement. The ombudsman was of the view a shortfall in service had occurred as the company failed to meet its obligations under the management agreement.

The Complainant mentioned the window cleaning contract had expired and it was only upon raising the matter with the Company did it take any action to employ a new contractor. The Company accepted the window cleaning contract had expired but maintained it acted upon the Complainant’s contact as soon as it was received. Whilst the ombudsman acknowledged the contractor had now been replaced, it was concerning the Company had no understanding of when contracts required renewal and this was again a service shortfall.

The Complainant stated that internal redecoration had not been completed in line with the lease and had now been outstanding for several years. The Company did not comment on this point. The ombudsman explained the agent could only complete works when funds were available, when instructed to do so by its client and only after following statutory consultation procedures, if applicable. However, it was noted the Company had made no attempt at addressing the need for internal redecoration during its tenure and this was considered to be a further service shortfall. It was noted the management of the development had been handed over to a new agent and it was recommended the Complainant contact the new agent to consider the need for internal redecoration.

The Complainant was of the view the service charge apportionment was not correct and not in line with the lease. The Complainant stated the Company advised it would investigate the matter and respond but it had failed to do so. The Complainant wanted the Company to review the accounts to ensure the apportionments were correct.

The Company stated it was liaising with the accountant who prepared the service charge accounts to obtain earlier copies of the accounts in order to attempt to answer the queries raised. As the development had been handed over, the Complainant was advised to contact the new agent to take ownership of the issue. The ombudsman had not been provided with copy leases or the service charge accounts and was unable to establish what the apportionment should be and whether it had been applied correctly. The Complainant was signposted to Tribunal, which could address issues relating to the reasonableness of charges and variations to the lease.

The outcome: The ombudsman was not only concerned with the level of service provided as managing agent but also the Company’s handling of the complaint. Further emails highlighted the Company had tried to prevent the issues from being raised with the ombudsman and that its responses to the Complainant may not have been open and transparent. In these emails the Company recognised its service fell short but it failed to address this with the Complainant. It was noted that whilst the Company did respond to the Complainant’s contacts, they were often delayed and not in line with the timescales outlined in the Complaint Handling Procedure. It was considered there had been several shortfalls in service. The Company was required to refund a portion of its management fee to recognise the shortfall in its service as managing agent, to be applied to the service charge account. It was also required to make a goodwill payment to the Complainant for the shortfall in customer service that had occurred. 

Ombudsman Services: Property can be contacted at enquiries@os-property.org or phone: 0330 440 1634.

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