Safety testing in cemeteries and graveyards controlled by councils

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who believe that there has been some fault in the way the council has gone about laying gravestones flat and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

When I made my yearly visit to my mother's grave I was shocked to find the gravestone laid flat and a notice telling me to contact the council. Can the Ombudsman help me?

In some cases, yes. Councils have a duty, both to members of the public and their own workers, to make sure that cemeteries and graveyards for which they are responsible are safe places to be. A number of gravestones have become unstable since erection and caused accidents to people. To try to prevent this, most councils now test the safety of memorials at regular intervals. Unsafe memorials may have warning notices attached to them, be cordoned, supported by stakes, or laid flat on the ground.

Councils have to carry out safety testing but they must have a policy setting out how they will do this. But, if you believe that the council did something wrong in the way it carried out its testing, and can also show that it caused you problems, then you can complain to us.

How do I complain? 

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.

To complain to the Ombudsman phone our helpline on 0300 061 0614 (8.30am to 5.00pm, Mondays to Fridays). You will be able to discuss your complaint with one of our advisers. You can text us on 0762 481 1595.

You can complete an online complaint form.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for? 

Some faults we might find are that the council:

  • did not have a testing policy
  • did not give adequate publicity to its intention to carry out safety checks before starting
  • did not try to notify the grave owner that the memorial had failed the test
  • carried out the testing with staff or contractors who were untrained
  • failed to assess the risk posed by the memorial properly, and
  • laid memorials flat without considering other methods of making a memorial safe.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault? 

It depends on the fault and what the consequences are for you. We can recommend that the council takes action to put the matter right. Depending on what the complaint is about, we may ask the council to:

  • Make a payment in some cases; the amount we suggest will depend on how much you have been affected by what the council has done wrong. This might cover the cost of re erecting a memorial that should not have been laid down, or to cover a family’s distress on discovering a memorial laid flat or supported by a stake when there had been poor advance publicity about testing taking place. We may also ask for a payment to acknowledge your time, trouble or expense in pursuing your complaint.
  • Improve procedures so that the same problems do not occur again. For example, we may ask the council to publicise more widely details of testing before it starts, or to introduce a system for notifying owners of memorials that have failed the safety test.
  • Introduce a system for training staff who carry out testing. 

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr P complained that the council failed to inform relatives adequately before laying flat his father's memorial which it considered unsafe, that the work was carried out by untrained staff, and that there was no proper risk assessment. We found that the council failed to give proper publicity to its intention to begin testing. It failed to post notices in the cemetery. The few days’ prior notice in a local newspaper was too short. Staff had not been trained to carry out testing. The council had failed to consider the risk posed by a memorial before laying it flat. The council paid Mr P £250 to acknowledge his time and trouble, and half the reasonable cost of reinstating his father's memorial. The council agreed to review its policies and procedures. It also adopted a policy of risk assessment.
Mr B and five others complained that they had not been informed before the council laid flat memorials to their relatives. We found that the council was not at fault in giving general publicity to its intention to test, rather than trying to notify owners individually. Advance publicity was given in a newsletter delivered to each household, in the press, and by notices in the cemeteries.

Other sources of information

The Ministry of Justice issued guidance, in January 2009, entitled Managing the Safety of Burial Ground Memorials, see www.gov.uk/government/publications/burial-grounds-guidance-on-managing-unstable-gravestones

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman provides a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result the Ombudsman aims to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

July 2015 

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