Complaint about HM Courts Service
Complaint about a breach of confidentiality by HM Courts Service as well as their subsequent handling of correspondence, a complaint and a request for compensation
Background to the complaint
In August 2006 Mr and Mrs M moved house because they had been threatened by the second of two defendants against whom Mrs M had brought civil proceedings. A decision had been taken not to prosecute that defendant in relation to the alleged threats and Mrs M had discontinued her case against that defendant (but not the other). However, Mr and Mrs M believed that the threat against them remained, which led to their decision to move.
Mr M wrote to HM Courts Service (HMCS), following a telephone call to them the previous day, supplying his new address on the understanding that it would not be disclosed outside the court or its staff, nor passed to either of the defendants or their representatives.
In September 2006 Mr M received correspondence at his new address from the second defendant’s solicitors. Mr M raised this with the court. The defendant’s solicitors said that a member of court staff had provided them with the address.
Complaint to HM Courts Service
Mr M wrote to HMCS to complain. They said that no order had been made not to disclose the address, that they could not locate any member of staff who recalled disclosing it, nor find any evidence that they had done so. They also said that they had written to the defendant’s solicitors asking them not to give the address to anyone.
Mr M complained to the Area Director, relaying the advice he had been given before disclosing his address and saying that he had not been told that a court order would be required. He sought £18,000, covering damages from stress as well as costs.
In October 2006 Mr M reported being threatened close to his new home. HMCS wrote to Mr M and said that they could only make a payment if he had suffered financial loss as a direct result of an administrative error. They had seen no evidence that the solicitors had passed on his new address or that the court had given the address to them. They said the decision to move house had been Mr M’s and he had provided no evidence of further incidents since his move. A judge had seen the letter requesting non-disclosure and had made no order.
Mr M wrote again and said that his claim regarded the court’s breach of confidentiality (not an assumption of the information being passed on), that he had been threatened again and that, without a court order, HMCS had now implemented non-disclosure of the address. HMCS replied to Mr M saying that there was no evidence that his address had been supplied to the solicitors via the court and that any claim from him could not be considered without this.
Mr M wrote again; HMCS said they would reply by 22 December 2006. In December 2006 they wrote to his MP and said that Mr M’s claim for compensation had been refused as it did not meet the criteria for payment. They said that there was nothing to prevent the address being disclosed when the solicitors rang the court, but they had now removed the address from their system as a gesture of goodwill.
On 28 December 2006 Mr M received a letter saying that HMCS were seeking legal advice, which would take 28 days. Mr M complained that HMCS were breaching their service standards and had changed their position on several points in their letter to his MP, including now admitting to passing on the address. In January 2007 HMCS replied to Mr M and said there had been no maladministration by their staff.
In June 2007 HMCS gave Mr M’s details to a bank. In August they apologised for this and said they should have contacted Mr M first.
What we investigated
In August 2007 Mr M complained to the Ombudsman. We investigated Mr M’s complaints that HMCS:
- committed a breach of confidentiality by disclosing his address;
- provided contradictory accounts of their actions in responding to his complaint;
- provided several different reasons for refusing his claim for compensation;
- failed to make him aware of the correct complaints procedure; and
- failed to meet service standards in replying to correspondence.
Mr M said that the actions of HMCS had nullified attempts by him and his wife to secure their personal safety by moving house. He said that they were fearful for their wellbeing and had a minimal quality of life.
What our investigation found
We found that HMCS failed to ensure that the advice they provided to Mr M was clear, accurate and complete. He was given misleading advice and he, not unreasonably, believed that his address would be kept confidential. Having failed to advise Mr M correctly, HMCS then breached his confidentiality by disclosing his address to the solicitors. We did not find that they disclosed Mr M’s address to any party other than the solicitors and the bank.
We found that HMCS failed to deal with Mr M objectively and consistently by not reaching their final conclusion (about whether they had passed the address on to the solicitors by telephone) at an earlier stage.
We found that the criterion which HMCS used to judge whether to pay compensation remained essentially the same: did Mr and Mrs M incur financial loss as a result of an administrative error by court staff? We did not, therefore, find that HMCS were maladministrative in that respect.
We did not find any evidence that HMCS provided Mr M with their complaints procedure and it would have been good customer service for them to have done so. However, this did not hinder Mr M’s ability to pursue the matter and they referred his complaints to the correct office within reasonable timescales. We did not therefore find that this omission caused any injustice to Mr M.
We found that it was reasonable for HMCS to have decided to seek legal advice in order to give Mr M a proper response and this inevitably caused a delay. However, they sent Mr M clear holding letters in the interim. We did not find that any delay in handling correspondence amounted to maladministration.
We found that Mr M had very real concerns for his family’s safety and that his distress was exacerbated by maladministration on the part of HMCS. We also found that Mr M had been caused additional frustration by their handling of the issue of whether they had disclosed his address to the solicitors.
Our investigation report, issued in February 2008, partly upheld Mr M’s complaint.
As a result of our recommendations HMCS made a compensation payment of £500 to Mr M and sent him a written apology for the shortcomings identified in our report.
Principles of Good Administration
The Principles of Good Administration were not referred to in our report but this case summary serves to illustrate the following Principles:
- ‘Being open and accountable’ (ensuring that information, and any advice provided, is clear, accurate and complete).
- ‘Acting fairly and proportionately’ (dealing with people and issues objectively and consistently).