Bereaved families are being charged thousands of pounds in care home fees after the death of a relative in residential care, despite the competition watchdog saying such arrangements are likely to be unlawful.
Some providers are billing next of kin sums equivalent to up to a month’s worth of care after the death of a resident, four years after the Competition and Markets Authority declared such charges illegal.
Michael Moore received a demand for a £2,100 “adjustment” fee after the death of his aunt June Blackman in a Norfolk care home last April. He had expected a rebate from Lydia Eva Court in Gorleston-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth, since he had prepaid her care fees for the month in which she died.
“When I queried it, I was told that the terms and conditions allowed the home to charge fees for 14 days after the death of a resident,” he said. “This ‘adjustment’ fee was in addition to the £5,100 fee I’d already paid for what turned out to be the last month of her life.”
In 2018, an investigation into unfair fees by the CMA concluded that care homes that charged for extended periods after a resident’s death were in breach of consumer protection laws. The regulator stated that families should not be charged more than three days’ fees pro rata after a death.
Up to 10 days may be chargeable if there is a delay in removing the deceased’s belongings from their room. Care providers were required to amend their terms and conditions with immediate effect or face enforcement action under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
However, some care providers are continuing to charge excessive sums. NorseCare, which runs Lydia Eva Court along with 20 other care homes across East Anglia, has retained a clause buried in its terms and conditions that allows it to charge full care fees for two weeks after a resident’s death.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Unlike many care providers in the UK, NorseCare does not take a maintenance deposit upfront. Instead, NorseCare has a final charge following the death of a resident, which enables us to undertake the maintenance and refurbishment to bring the room back into service.”
However, unlike upfront deposits, NorseCare’s fee is non-refundable. According to the CMA guidance, deductions for maintenance and refurbishment must be clearly set out in the terms and conditions and the invoice and supported by evidence.
Normal wear and tear cannot be charged for. Neither the NorseCare terms and conditions seen by the Guardian, nor the invoice sent to Moore, mention what the 14-day fee covers.
NorseCare, which supports 1,500 residents, is part of Norse Group, owned by Norfolk county council. The company declined to comment on how it justifies mandatory and uncosted charges for maintenance, and has refused to rescind Moore’s bill.
“In light of Mr Moore’s concerns, NorseCare will look to review how we communicate our contracts and how can we improve the customer experience for all future residents,” said a spokesperson.
Norfolk county council said it did not set out or control “the detailed trading arrangements for NorseCare”, but that it had asked the Norse board to review its current charging policy.
Many families are likely to have paid surcharges after a death without realising that they can be contested.
Last year, the local government and social care ombudsman ordered a Surrey care home to refund a complainant who had been charged four weeks’ worth of care fees after a relative had died.
Given that the fee tends to be buried in the contractual small print, which is not usually published on care home websites, it is impossible to gauge how many others are still charging fees likely to be considered unlawful by the CMA.
The Care Quality Commission, which regulates the care sector, said that it did not collect data on unfair fees and was unable to comment. The CMA also declined to comment.