ESSEX County Council was repeatedly forced to fork out compensation after incorrectly charging families for the care of elderly and vulnerable relatives.

The authority is among the list of councils which were forced to pay out on the most occasions for the distress caused by the incorrect charges.

A report released by Newsquest’s data investigation unit found 17 complaints about the handling of charging for care services were upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman over the past four years.

During one finding, the ombudsman said Essex County Council had failed to give one woman any advance costs information about a temporary stay in a care home.

“This meant she could not make informed decisions to potentially reduce the financial impact,” they said.

“The council failed to properly consider disability related expenditure for care at home, and failed to properly deal with her complaint.”

In this case, the council was forced to apologise, pay £250 in compensation and reduce the complainant’s care bill by half.

In another, the council was found to have delayed applying changes to the way it charges for care at home, leading to the complainant’s family wrongly receiving a bill for more than £10,000.

Nationally, more than 50 per cent of the 972 complaints submitted to Ombudsman between 2015 and 2019 were upheld.

Many complaints related to top-up fees, while others were about delays in financial assessments being carried out, incorrect invoices and bills issued, or failure to provide clear information about care home fees.

In many cases councils were ordered to apologise, pay compensation and refund any wrongly paid top-up fees.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “The care system is hideously complex and councils haven’t got enough cash to go round, so this is a sure fire recipe for some unfortunate older people and their families paying more for care than they legally should.”

An Essex County Council spokesman said the authority serves a population of more than 1.4 million, with around 20 per cent over the age of 65.

He said: “At any one time, we provide support to 17,000 people in adult social care.

“For the five years 2015 to 2019, 17 complaints have been upheld, an average of 3.4 each year.

"3.4 cases out of 17,000 is 0.01 per cent.

“The council is actively committed to transparency and does signpost people to the ombudsman if they are not satisfied with our complaint response.”