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Home Group Limited (202002972)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202002972

Home Group Limited

1 July 2021


Our approach

The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme). The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.

Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.

The complaint

  1. The complaint is about:
    1. The landlord’s handling of the resident’s reports of leaks coming from her water tank and leaving her with no hot water.
    2. The landlord’s associated complaint handling.

Background and summary of events

  1. The resident is a tenant of the landlord. The property is a flat, with the hot-water provision being situated within the property. The landlord is responsible for the repair and maintenance of any installations relating to heating and hot water within the property.  
  2. The resident first reported that the water tank/cylinder in her property was leaking on 14 November 2019, leaving her with no hot water. The contactor’s repair records note that an operative attended that day and closed off the water supply to the cylinder, which would then allow them to determine if the cylinder needed replacing.
  3. A further report was made on 19 November 2019 and, as a result, an order was raised to replace the cylinder that day.
  4. The landlord’s contact records note that the resident called on 22 November 2019 to request an update as she had been without hot water since 14 November 2019. It was noted that the earliest appointment it could offer was 9 December 2019 with a plumber and an electrician being required in order to replace the cylinder.
  5. The landlord’s contact records note that the resident called on 4 December 2019 as a contractor had tried to gain access to her property that day; however, the resident said she was unaware of the appointment, believing the agreed appointment date to be the 9 December 2019. The notes state that the appointment that day, 4 December 2019, was for a plumber only and so the landlord arranged for both the plumber and the electrician to attend on the 9 December 2019.
  6. The contractor’s repair records note that on 9 December 2019 they attended the property and concluded that both the hot and cold-water cylinders needed replacing.
  7. The contractor’s repair records note that they then attended on 14 December 2019 to replace the cylinders, but were unable to complete the repair as they were given the incorrect-sized cylinder and therefore a further job needed to be rebooked in order to carry out the replacement.
  8. On 17 December 2019 the cylinders were replaced, pipework was altered, and the tanks were filled. There were no further leaks found, but an electrician was required to reconnect the tank which took place on 18 December 2019.
  9. The landlord’s contact records note that, on 23 December 2019, the resident reported that she had recently had her hot water tank replaced but the pipes around it were now leaking.
  10. The landlord’s contractors informed the landlord that they had attempted to book a visit in twice with the resident but were unable to do so. As a result, the work repair order was cancelled on 3 January 2020.
  11. The landlord’s contact records note that, on 16 January 2020, the resident reported again that the pipes surrounding her hot water tank were leaking. She also reported that the cupboard door would no longer close because of the way the new tank had been fitted. An appointment was scheduled for 30 January 2020.
  12. The resident raised a formal complaint later that same day on 16 January 2020. In it, she detailed her dissatisfaction with:
    1. The landlord’s handling of her reports of a leak coming from her water tank, specifically:
      1. the delays in resolving the leaks.
      2. contractors not having the correct parts nor equipment.
      3. jobs not being raised correctly.
      4. the new water tank being too big for the cupboard and as a result the cupboard door would not shut, causing damp issues.
      5. having to take four days off work to accommodate contractor visits.
    2. Being misled in November 2018 by the landlord regarding the replacement of the water tanks and the landlord’s poor communication and staff conduct.
    3. The landlord’s associated complaint handling, having made two complaints regarding this issue previously on 26 November 2019 and on 9 December 2019 and again on 19 December 2019, yet nothing had been resolved nor call-back requests adhered to; in some instances, she said she was told that a complaint was not registered on the landlord’s system.
    4. Having to use cooking pots to boil water for a bath, which had resulted in the pots being damaged because of overuse.
  13. She concluded by asking:
    1. Why did the landlord let the property knowing that the water tanks were faulty?
    2. How could the landlord let someone go without hot water for 35 days (the resident’s assertion)?
    3. Why did the landlord’s contractors not have the correct equipment?
    4. Why had she been misled by the landlord?
    5. What is going to be done to remedy the way the landlord had treated her?
  14. The landlord acknowledged the complaint via letter on 21 January 2020, in which it stated it had enclosed a leaflet detailing its complaints procedure, advising the resident to keep this safe as she may wish to refer to it in the future.
  15. On 24 January 2020, the landlord provided an update to the resident, which confirmed an appointment had been scheduled for 30 January 2020 to repair the new leak. The landlord also informed the resident that it would only be able to investigate issues up to three months, in line with its complaint policy, which it said had been detailed in its complaints leaflet that it had attached to the letter acknowledging the complaint, dated 21 January 2020.
  16. The contractor’s repair records confirm that the new leak, following the replacement of the cylinders, had been repaired on 30 January 2020 and the issue was considered resolved.
  17. In the landlord’s stage one complaint response of 12 February 2020, the landlord provided a timeline of events based on information from its contractors. It apologised for the delays with completing the repairs and for the inconvenience this had caused. It said that it was currently working with its contractor to reduce the need for repeated visits, to improve the service moving forward.
  18. On 10 July 2020, the resident contacted this Service explaining that she had gone without hot water for 34 days while her water tank leak was waiting to be resolved. She believed the landlord should:
    1. reimburse her for expenditure she had to pay to use the launderette;
    2. reimburse her for costs related for the use of friends’ facilities; and
    3. reimburse her for travel costs and for the days she had taken off work to accommodate contractors’ visits.
  19. She also said she had raised three complaints to the landlord yet, when she contacts the landlord, it says she does not have an open complaint.
  20. This Service wrote to the landlord on 31 July 2020 to request it escalate the resident’s complaint and provide a response by 21 August 2020.
  21. The landlord provided its response on 6 August 2020 in which it confirmed that it had responded to the resident’s complaint on 12 February 2020 and had not received correspondence from her to indicate she was not satisfied with that response. The landlord said that, as per its complaints process outlined in its leaflet it provided on 21 January 2020, the resident had eight weeks to escalate her complaint from the date the complaint response was issued. Because the complaint had been formally investigated previously, the landlord confirmed that it would be withdrawing the complaint. Moreover, it said that, because the issue with the water tank occurred in November 2019, it was unable to investigate as it had been over three months since the incident occurred. The landlord advised the resident to contact this Service if she remained dissatisfied.
  22. The resident emailed this Service on 25 August 2020 to contest that she was ever provided with any next steps regarding her complaint and affirmed that the leaflet was not attached to the aforementioned email of 21 January 2020.

Assessment and findings

Policies and Procedures

  1. The resident’s tenancy agreement stipulates that the landlord is responsible for repairs to any installation in the property that provides heating and hot water.
  2. The landlord’s website states that it aims to attend emergency repairs within six hours and complete the repair within 24 hours. If the repair is a little bit more complex than first thought, the contractor should explain this to the resident.
  3. For non-emergency repairs, the landlord’s website states that its contractors will contact the resident to confirm the appointment and aim to complete the repair in 14 days.
  4. The landlord operates a two-stage complaint procedure, which stipulates that complaints must be made within three months of the event. Complaints can be considered outside of this timeframe in exceptional circumstances. At stage one and stage two, the landlord will aim to reach a resolution to the complaint within 20 working days. The landlord’s Customer Leaflet regarding complaints states that if a complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome at stage one, they will have the opportunity to have the complaint reviewed at stage two, as long as the complainant escalates the complaint within eight weeks of the stage one response.
  5. The landlord’s complaints policy stipulates that discretionary compensation can be considered if this is requested as part of the complaint. The landlord’s Property Management Policy states that where repairs have not been completed satisfactorily or within pre-defined timescales, it will offer compensation in line with its Right to Repair Schemes and its compensation policy compliance notes and supporting resources (these have not been provided by the landlord).

The landlord’s handling of the resident’s reports of leaks coming from her water tank and leaving her with no hot water.

  1. It is not disputed by either party that, when the resident first reported the leak emanating from her water tank on 14 November 2019, this constituted an emergency repair. It is noted, however, that there are conflicting accounts regarding whether the landlord adhered to its timeframe in which to attend the emergency repair, as stipulated above in paragraph 25.
  2. Both parties have provided separate accounts of when the emergency repair took place: the resident has said the emergency repair took place on 16 November 2019, whereas the landlord has said the emergency repair took place on 14 November 2019. When there are conflicting accounts of when a repair took place, the Ombudsman relies on the evidence provided in order to establish what events took place and when.
  3. In this case, it is evident the landlord has relied on the information provided by its contractors, as recorded in the contractor’s repair records; these show that an emergency repair was attended on 14 November 2019 at 20:39pm having been reported that same day at 16:46pm and thereby within the six-hour window to attend an emergency repair. The landlord would be reliant on its contractors to provide accurate records of repairs undertaken. The landlord, therefore, presented its contractor’s version of events in the stage one complaint response of 12 February 2020, as part of the landlord’s timeline of events. Having relayed this version back to the resident, it demonstrated that it had taken this aspect seriously and investigated accordingly.
  4. More pertinently, when the resident was presented with the landlord’s timeline of events, which was in opposition to her own, the resident did not challenge the landlord to investigate this aspect any further. If she had done so, the landlord would have been expected to carry out a further investigation into the resident’s claims. However, this was not necessary in the circumstances, as no challenge to the landlord’s narrative was offered thereafter. As such, there was no evidence of a service failure identified when responding to the emergency repair.
  5. Similarly, there was no evidence of a service failure identified when the resident reported a further leak on 23 December 2019, following the reinstatement of the hot water on 18 December 2019. Though this repair was not completed until 30 January 2020, which would be outside the timeframe in which a non-emergency repair should be completed, as detailed in paragraph 26 above, there is no evidence to suggest that this delay could be attributed to the landlord or the landlord’s contractors.
  6. For example, when the resident reported the subsequent leak, the landlord’s contractors were said to have been trying to contact the resident to arrange an appointment – as was their obligation to do so as detailed in paragraph 26. They were, however, unsuccessful in making contact with the resident in order to arrange an appointment date. The repair work order was therefore cancelled on 3 January 2020 due to the contractors being unable to contact the resident to confirm the repair appointment. When the resident reported this again on 16 January 2020, the repair was completed on 30 January 2020, which was within the stipulated timescales detailed in paragraph 26. Much like the emergency repair situation, as mentioned above, the landlord presented this to the resident as part of its timeline of events in the stage one response; however, this was not challenged nor questioned subsequently. As such, there is no evidence of a failing by the landlord in this instance, as the narrative that the contractors were unable to contact the resident was not contested.
  7. That said, there were some failures identified in the landlord’s handling of the resident’s reports of a leak. It is not disputed by either party that the landlord had delayed in responding to the resident’s reports of a leak. When failures are identified, we would expect a landlord to address the failures in line with the Ombudsman’s Dispute Resolution Principles (be fair, put things right, and learn from outcomes) and in line with its policies and procedure.
  8. To put matters right, the landlord completed the initial repair on the 18 December 2019, when the resident’s hot water provision was reinstated. In addition, it offered an apology for the delays and for the inconvenience caused in resolving the issue. However, the above did not constitute proportionate redress if we consider the time and trouble spent contacting the landlord to resolve the issue, and the inconvenience caused by not having access to hot water for 34 days.
  9. The resident first reported the issue on 14 November 2019 and as stated above, the initial repair was completed on 18 December 2019. During this period, it is not disputed by either party that the resident was without hot water for a period of 34 days from 14 November 2019, when the report was first made, to 18 December 2019, when the tank was reconnected following the replacement of the cylinder and the altering of the pipework on 17 December 2019.
  10. In accordance with the landlord’s website, the repair should have been completed within 24 hours following the emergency repair which made it safe. This would have had added significance, and thereby urgency, because it would mean the resident was without hot water from this point on. Because the resident was without hot water for 34 days, the landlord should have offered compensation in accordance with its Property Management Policy, as detailed in paragraph 28, whereby compensation should be offered when repairs have not been completed within pre-defined timescales. In this case, it was 33 days later when the repair was completed and therefore compensation should have been considered for that period.
  11. Furthermore, there was no clear communication regarding a timeframe when the repair would be completed. As alluded to on its website, the landlord is overly reliant on the contractor explaining the next steps and expectations following an emergency repair. This has the potential to relieve the landlord of its responsibility to provide clear, accurate and timely information about its repairs and this is seemingly what has happened in this case. There is no evidence to suggest the resident was well informed about when the repair would be completed, which resulted in her contacting the landlord excessively in pursuit of  a response as to when the repair would be completed. In light of the above, service failure has been found as the offer of redress offered did not satisfactorily resolve the complaint.

The landlord’s complaint handling

  1. In accordance with the landlord’s complaints procedure, detailed above in paragraph 27, the landlord did adhere to its obligations when it determined that it would not escalate the resident’s complaint to stage two of the complaint procedure. As per the landlord’s Customer Leaflet, a resident will have the opportunity to escalate a complaint to stage two if it is done so within eight weeks of receiving the stage one response. The stage one complaint response was dated 12 February 2020 and as such the resident should have escalated her complaint before 8 April 2020. However, the complaint was not escalated until 31 July 2020, when this Service requested that the landlord provide a stage two response following contact from the resident on 10 July 2020.
  2. What is more, because the complaint escalation was made on 31 July 2020 and thereby it was over six months since the event occurred, the landlord was adhering to its complaints procedure by not opening a new complaint at this point, as a complaint must be made within three months of the event, as detailed in paragraph 27.
  3. Incidentally, it is evident that the landlord did not address all the resident’s concerns she had highlighted within the stage one complaint response. For example, the resident raised concerns regarding the water tank being too big following the replacement, being misled by the landlord, and about staff conduct. This would not constitute a failure in its complaint handling, in this instance, as the opportunity to address these omissions could have been dealt with as part of the stage two complaint response. The resident could have raised these aspects again in her escalation, which would then have given the landlord the opportunity, as part of its complaint process, to address these issues in full. As explained above, the resident did not escalate the complaint in line with the landlord’s complaint procedure and therefore the opportunity was missed. However, a recommendation will be made accordingly.
  4. That said, the resident has claimed that she was unaware of how to escalate the complaint, affirming that she was not provided with the Customer Leaflet on 21 January 2021 as stated by the landlord. There were, however, three references to the aforementioned leaflet in correspondence sent to the resident, giving her the opportunity to request this information if she was not in receipt of this.
  5. First, in the landlord’s acknowledgement letter of 21 January 2020, it does reference that it has enclosed a leaflet detailing its complaint procedure, advising the resident to ensure the leaflet is kept for future reference.
  6. Second, in the landlord’s email, dated 24 January 2020, it too references the leaflet with information regarding the complaint procedure being attached to the email of 21 January 2020.
  7. Finally, the landlord again references this leaflet in the stage one complaint response, dated 12 February 2020, which explicitly states that the resident should refer to the leaflet it had previously provided with the acknowledgement letter for further information on its complaint procedure.
  8. Therefore, while this Service is unable to confirm nor deny whether the leaflet was indeed attached to the aforementioned letter, there was ample opportunity to request the leaflet following the acknowledgment of the complaint, which would have provided the timeframes in which the resident should escalate the complaint and given the next steps in the process. The landlord could not be at fault if it were unaware there was an issue and therefore no failure has been identified.
  9. Even so, it would have been helpful if the landlord had provided the next steps and expectations in the stage one complaint response itself. Moreover, the stage one complaint response also does not specifically state that the resident should refer to the leaflet if she remained dissatisfied with the response. Though the above did not constitute a failure in service, it could have added more clarity and conveyed as sense of transparency in the process, which in turn could have helped with the landlord/resident relationship. As such, a recommendation will be made accordingly.

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was service failure by the landlord in the way it responded to the resident’s reports of leaks coming from her water tank and leaving her with no hot water.
  2. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was no maladministration by the landlord in respect of its complaint handling.

Reasons

  1. To put matters right, the landlord did complete the necessary repairs to resolve the leaks coming from the resident’s water tank. The landlord also offered an apology for the acknowledged delays incurred in completing the repairs and for the inconvenience this had caused. However, this did not provide adequate redress in accordance with the landlord’s own policies and procedures; and nor was it proportionate to the level of distress and inconvenience, and for the time and trouble taken in getting the matter resolved. As such, the landlord should provide proportionate compensation to satisfactorily resolve the complaint.
  2. Regarding the landlord’s complaint handling, the landlord did adhere to its complaints procedure as detailed in its Complaint Leaflet. Moreover, though the landlord did not address all the aspects of the complaint in its stage one response, the landlord was not given the opportunity to address these in the stage two response, as part of its complaint procedure, and therefore no failure was identified in its complaint handling.

Orders and recommendations

Order

  1. That within six weeks of the date of this determination the landlord is to pay the resident £165.00 compensation calculated at £5.00 per day for the period in which she was without hot water (x 33 days).

Recommendation

  1. It is recommended that the landlord review its complaints procedure to consider adding the next steps and expectations to the complaint responses. The landlord should also consider further training for its staff to ensure all aspects of a complaint are addressed within the complaint response at the earliest opportunity.