Mr D's complaint about the Child Support Agency
In Mr D’s case, the Child Support Agency’s poor record keeping had a far-reaching impact. Although they recognised, relatively quickly, that he was not the man they were looking for, they continued to pursue him and to cause him a great deal of distress for a long time because they had not removed his details from their computer system.
Background to the complaint
In March 2004 the Child Support Agency (the Agency) incorrectly identified Mr D as a non-resident parent, after inputting the wrong National Insurance number into their computer system. They sent Mr D a maintenance enquiry form, which he returned marked ‘return to sender’. He received a further form and telephoned the Agency several times to try and resolve things. The Agency traced Mr D’s employer (he was in the armed forces), obtained his income details and calculated his liability for child support maintenance. Mr D telephoned the Agency on 11 May to say that he was not the non-resident parent. The Agency made enquiries of the parent with care and accepted Mr D was not the non-resident parent. In June they started to remove his details from their computer system, but a system fault prevented them from doing so.
In July 2004 the Agency apologised to Mr D for this ‘unnecessary and upsetting intrusion into your life’, and paid him compensation of £100. In December the Agency wrote to Mr D saying that he owed £1,692.55 in maintenance arrears and warned him they may impose a deduction from earnings order. Mr D said this correspondence started his girlfriend’s breakdown of trust in him.
In January 2005 the Agency sent a deduction from earnings order to Mr D’s employer. In February Mr D’s solicitors wrote to the Agency: they were considering Mr D’s position with regard to damages for the hurt to his reputation, distress, and extra expense incurred. Mr D’s superior asked the Agency to withdraw their demand for payment of the maintenance arrears. The Agency then cancelled the deduction from earnings order.
In March 2005 the Agency apologised to Mr D’s solicitors for not having dealt properly with Mr D’s case, and gave assurances that the computer system was being corrected to remove his details. They also said that a compensation payment was being considered. On 10 March the Agency refused Mr D a compensation payment. They acknowledged the inconvenience they had caused him, but required evidence of the legal costs he had incurred before they could make that decision. The Agency said that on 23 March and again on 4 April they raised the matter of the fault with their computer system with their service provider. (The Agency were unable to say when and how they eventually removed Mr D’s details from their system successfully.)
In April 2005 Mr D took on a specialist operational role in Iraq. On 12 April the Agency sent him two further letters, including a schedule of what maintenance payments he was to make and when, and in May they asked Mr D’s employer for information. Mr D said the situation became more frustrating and inconvenient with each letter. Each time he had to discuss the matter with his superiors, solicitors, family and girlfriend, which was time consuming and stressful. He said that the latest correspondence had caused a total breakdown of trust with his girlfriend. In July Mr D’s solicitors told the Agency that their expenses up to 16 June 2005 were £193.72. The Agency did not respond.
On 8 November the solicitors contacted Mr D’s MP, who asked the Agency to investigate the matter. In reply, the Agency said that Mr D had received compensation of £100 and they had closed the case. They were currently considering whether or not to reimburse Mr D’s legal costs.
In January 2006 the Agency awarded £50 to Mr D for inconvenience caused and £193.72 for his legal costs. The solicitors asked the Agency to review the ‘derisory’ compensation payment. The Agency said they could review their decision if new evidence was provided but that the solicitors’ letter gave no grounds to do so. In April the Ombudsman received Mr D’s complaint, and then referred the case to the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) to try and resolve the matter.
In July 2006 the Agency refused Mr D a compensation payment for gross embarrassment and distress. In August Mr D’s staff officer supplied evidence to suggest that the Agency had caused Mr D stress and financial concern. He said that the intrusion had ‘affected his [Mr D’s] effectiveness in a tense and highly focussed operational role…’ and that he was ‘deployed in a high profile, high paced role demanding a great deal of physical and mental energy, and requiring much motivation’. He said that Mr D had become sullen and withdrawn and that the Agency had placed a great burden on him when he was learning a new role. That had affected Mr D’s performance and he had lagged behind others who joined the unit after him. In August the Agency awarded £50 to Mr D for distress.
ICE upheld Mr D’s complaint in November 2006. Their recommendations to the Agency included awarding further compensation and reimbursing Mr D’s legal fees from June 2005 onwards. The Agency said they accepted ICE’s findings and apologised to Mr D for the level of service he had received. They did not explain, as recommended by ICE, what action they had taken to ensure they would not contact him again, and refused to pay further compensation to Mr D as they considered that the £200 already paid was adequate. They noted that they should not have reimbursed Mr D’s legal costs up to June 2005, because the Agency had been set up so that customers would not require professional advisers, except in exceptional circumstances. They refused to reimburse Mr D’s legal costs from June 2005 onwards. ICE asked the Agency to reconsider their decision.
In February 2007 the Agency awarded Mr D further compensation of £75 for the inconvenience caused, but they did not address ICE’s recommendation about reimbursing Mr D’s legal costs from June 2005 onwards.
What we investigated
We investigated Mr D’s complaint that the Agency had pursued him for maintenance having previously conceded that he was not a non-resident parent. He said that the Agency’s action had caused him extreme distress and had adversely affected his career progression. Mr D wanted the Agency to stop chasing him for maintenance and he sought further compensation (he had received payments totalling £275).
What our investigation found
After admitting they had wrongly identified Mr D as a non-resident parent in March 2004, the Agency failed to correct the problem and continued to pursue him about his non-existent maintenance liability. In June they began removing Mr D from their computer system, but failed to complete this action, enabling the imposition of a deduction from earnings order. Again, in March and April 2005 they began to address why they had been unable to remove Mr D from their system, but failed to resolve it. The Agency are unable to say when they successfully removed Mr D from their system, but it was clearly some months after the problems were first identified. This took far too long.
One of the Principles of Good Administration is ‘Getting it right’, meaning that public bodies should act in accordance with the law and due rights of those concerned, and in accordance with their own policy and guidance. Another is ‘Putting things right’, which means that public bodies should put mistakes right quickly and effectively. The failure to meet one or more of the Principles does not necessarily indicate maladministration but, in this case, the Agency’s mistakes and inability to sort them out fell so far short of what they should have done that we considered there was maladministration.
As a result of the Agency’s maladministration, Mr D suffered severe distress, frustration and inconvenience. The repeated assertion that he was the father of a child is likely to have impacted negatively on Mr D’s partner’s trust in him. The time taken to resolve matters and to offer Mr D redress compounded his worry and sense of powerlessness, and would have affected his ability to perform to the necessary level in a stressful working environment. He also incurred unnecessary legal costs because of the Agency’s actions.
We upheld Mr D’s complaint and concluded our investigation in September 2008.
Two of the Principles for Remedy (‘Getting it right’ and ‘Putting things right’) recommend taking into account both objective evidence and more subjective views of the impact of the injustice or hardship and considering the full impact on the individual. The Agency’s own policy of redress says it is not necessary to obtain objective evidence of severe distress where the distress is self-evident, which we considered was the case here.
As a result of our recommendations, the Agency:
- agreed to pay Mr D a further £1,225 to remedy the injustice to him;
- agreed to pay £1,389.50 to compensate him for legal expenses and agreed to reimburse his reasonable travel costs (incurred attending legal appointments) since June 2005; and
- arranged for a senior officer to send Mr D a written apology and to give him her contact details so he can contact her if anything goes wrong in future.