Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 18 Jul 2011
Bexley Council’s rigid following of procedure and failure to update its address records meant that a woman suffered bailiff action unnecessarily for a parking fine.
The Ombudsman said that, as a result, the woman ended up paying £629.95 to clear the debt, instead of the £150 for which she was liable.
She said: “I consider that had the Council considered its discretion during the recovery process it would have responded to [the woman] at the correct address and she would have paid the appropriate fine. So the debt would not have been referred to the bailiff and the bailiff’s costs would not have been incurred.”
A resident complained that the Council pursued her at an old address for a penalty charge notice (PCN) of £100. She had not updated the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of her new address and did not have a mail forwarding service in place. As a result, she became aware of the parking fine on collection of post from her old address, which included the PCN and charge certificate advising the fine had increased to £150. She wrote to the Council to advise of her new address and requested to pay the reduced fine of £50 as she had missed the opportunity. The Council did not respond to the letter. The Council pursued the debt to bailiff action unknown to the woman as correspondence was directed to her old address; six months after her letter she made a payment of £629.95 to the bailiffs to clear the debt. The complainant believed the Council should have responded to her correspondence at the address she supplied, so that the bailiff action could have been avoided.
The Ombudsman considered that, whilst the Council followed the correct recovery process, it at no time considered its discretion. It did not consider correspondence which the complainant sent in; failed to update her address and so continued to send all correspondence to an old address where she no longer resided. As a result she did not receive relevant documents, and was not aware of the actions being taken against her. The Council rigidly followed its automated process, did not consider the individual circumstances or the use of its discretion.
The Ombudsman considered that, had such failings not occurred, the complainant would have paid the £150 fine for which she was liable, because at no time did she seek to evade payment of the debt. She lost the opportunity to pay the original fine or the reduced amount due to her own initial failings. But had the Council used its available discretion it would have recognised her change of address and properly explained the position to her regarding the ongoing debt recovery action. She would not then have faced unexpected and avoidable bailiff action.
The Council complied with the Ombudsman's recommendations that it should:
- pay the complainant £479.95, being the difference between the £629.95 paid and the £150 she could have paid had the Council not fettered its discretion by its rigid procedures, and
- undertake a review of its automated PCN recovery procedure, ensuring that correspondence was considered even if received outside the statutory notification period to ensure it considered its discretion based on the individual circumstances of each case.
The real names of people in this report are not used for legal reasons.
LGO satisfied with Council's response: 30 November 2011