Northern Ireland

Bereaved family criticise health watchdog report delay

Joan Johnson was receiving home care when she had two falls in the space of 48 hours
Image caption Joan Johnson was receiving home care when she had two falls in the space of 48 hours

A bereaved family says it has been caused further distress by delays in the publication of a report by NI's government watchdog.

Joan Johnson, 81, died soon after she had two falls while receiving home care.

In 2017 her family made a complaint to the NI Ombudsman about her care and it was upheld.

But the investigation has yet to be published, following a challenge by the care company over its identification.

Domiciliary care agency, Homecare Independent Living, had been commissioned by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust to carry out Ms Johnson's care.

Her two falls occurred at her home within 48 hours in February 2015 while being lifted in a device aimed at assisting patients. A week later, she died in hospital from a heart condition.

'Deficient investigation'

The Northern Trust took more than two years to complete an internal investigation into Ms Johnson's death following her family's complaint.

Her daughter, Joan Crothers, says delays around her mother's case were prolonging her family's grief.

"If HCIL had put their hands up at the start and said, 'We made these mistakes' and the trust hadn't deflected our concerns during their investigation, I wouldn't have pursued it further", she said.

Ms Crothers referred her mother's case to the Northern Ireland Public Service Ombudsman (NIPSO). The ombudsman conducted two investigations - the first was into how the trust investigated the incident and the second was into the standard of care provided by HCIL.

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Media captionJoan Crothers says delays around the report into her mother's case are prolonging her family's grief

In the course of the ombudsman's first investigation, the Northern Trust apologised to the family for its "deficient" investigation and a summary report was published on NIPSO's website, also naming HCIL as the care provider.

The ombudsman's separate investigation into HCIL found failures in the care and treatment of Ms Johnson. It upheld the family's complaints over staff training, lack of risk assessments and a failure to address matters as a complaint.

In December 2018 NIPSO confirmed to Ms Crothers that it had completed the report and the findings had been accepted by HCIL in full and that it intended to publish the report on its website.

However, a year and a half on, the report into HCIL has not been published on the ombudsman's website.

The delay came after HCIL informed the ombudsman of its intention to judicially review the office over any decision to publish the investigation report online with the company's name.

NIPSO has previously published reports online naming public bodies and private companies carrying out public services that it has investigated.

'Public interest'

Ms Crothers says she was not informed by NIPSO about the reason for the delay in publication of the report into HCIL until September 2019, nine months after the report was completed.

By December 2019 the ombudsman's office informed her that it had now decided to publish the report without naming HCIL.

Ms Crothers said: "It just felt like another injustice, we didn't know this could happen and couldn't understand how a private company was able to dictate what the ombudsman should publish.

"It completely undermines the accountability of the process and this decision could have implications for other families who come behind us."

She added: "I just want lessons to be learned over what happened to my mother and lessons over how bereaved families should be treated.

"The ombudsman's office claims to act in the public interest and that's all we're asking for."

Image caption Joan Johnson's family complained to the NI Ombudsman about their mother's care

After voicing her concerns, NIPSO agreed to review this decision. It has now said a final decision about the status of the report would be made when the new ombudsman, Margaret Kelly, takes up post on 19 August 2020.

In a statement NIPSO said it was required by law to consult all interested parties before publishing a report.

"The challenge from the public service provider in this case has meant that the issues around publication have needed more careful and detailed consideration than is usually the case.

"We have therefore not been able to publish the report as soon as we normally would to allow us to understand and address the nature of the objections and to follow appropriate legal processes."

A spokesperson added: "To reiterate, our general position is that the public interest is served by publishing our full reports unless there are strong and valid reasons not to do so.

"It is important that public service providers are held to account in this way."

A spokesperson for HCIL said it would not be appropriate to comment while a review of the decision was ongoing.