A woman who had to sell her home to pay for her mental health care must be reimbursed £60,000, the local government ombudsman said yesterday.

A woman who had to sell her home to pay for her mental health care must be reimbursed £60,000, the local government ombudsman said yesterday.

Jerry White, the ombudsman, found Wiltshire County Council guilty of "maladministration causing injustice" because it has forced the elderly woman to spend £256 a week on her own care for the past four years after she was admitted to hospital under Section 117 of the Mental Health Act. The ruling could affect hundreds of people in similar circumstances who are being forced to pay for their long-term nursing care.

Charities welcomed the ombudsman's decision, but said that it was time the Department of Health issued clear guidelines on who had to pay for long-term Section 117 care.

A High Court case in July involving four local authorities confirmed that social services could not charge for Section 117 care. This decision is under appeal. It was estimated at the time of the ruling that half of local authorities were charging for such care.

Sally Greengross, director general of Age Concern England, said: "The message is clear that without guidance from the Department of Health, local authorities will continue to make their own decisions about charging for services which should be free.

"This is certainly not the only case in the country, and it is a scandal that such vulnerable people, many of whom have no one to fight on their behalf, are being charged."

The ombudsman found that there was no proper basis for the council to charge the woman, referred to as Miss Hughes for legal reasons, although that is not her name. The Department of Health had said as long ago as January 1994 that "services provided under Section 117 of the Mental Health Act 1983 are not subject to charging", Mr White said.

Miss Hughes has been in a residential home in Wiltshire since May 1995 after being sectioned. Although the council was advised by its lawyers in March 1996 that charging for care in these circumstances was unlawful, not until April 1998 did it change its policy on sectioned people, said Mr White. But even then, the council refused to pick up the bill for Miss Hughes's care, insisting she was "self-funding".

Miss Hughes's brother took a complaint to the ombudsman, saying his sister had been forced to sell her home to pay the weekly bills for care and to repay an £8,868 loan she had received from the council.

"To remedy the injustice to Miss Hughes, I recommend that the council reimburse all residential and other after-care costs," said Mr White.

"There will no doubt be others who are in a similar position. I urge the council to consider the case of other people who have had to pay for these services and to treat them in a similar way."

Dr Ray Jones, director of social services at Wiltshire County Council, said he was disappointed with the ombudsman's conclusions.