The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complains about the way the Council has dealt with recover of council tax arrears. There was delay in processing Miss B’s council tax support claim, which led the Council to take unnecessary court action to recover arrears. The Council has since corrected the amounts owed and agreed to make a payment to offset against the arrears Miss B still owes as a further remedy to the injustice caused.
- The complainant, whom I have called Miss B, complains about the way the Council has dealt with recovery of council tax arrears she owes. Miss B says there was an eight-month delay in the Council identifying errors with its calculation of council tax which led to it unnecessarily referring the debt to enforcement agents. Miss B says the Council’s action has caused her avoidable distress and has been discriminatory on grounds of disability.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated how the Council dealt with the calculation of council tax support and recovery of council tax arrears from Miss B.
- I have not investigated whether the Council’s actions amounted to disability discrimination because Miss B has a legal remedy for this.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information Miss B provided in support of her complaint.
- I have considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries.
- Miss B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Equality Act enables someone to make a claim to the County Court if they believe a public sector body has breached its public sector equality duties. The County Court may award damages.
Council Tax Support
- Before 2013 people who needed help to pay their council tax applied for council tax benefit (CTB). CTB was calculated in the same way as housing benefit (HB). Both CTB and HB were calculated on rules set by central government. These national rules included an ‘applicable amount’ – this was the amount the government said people needed to live on.
- The government abolished CTB in 2013. It introduced a local scheme whereby each council sets a council tax support scheme (CTS). For working age people, councils are free to set their own CTS rules.
- CTS is means-tested so the amount of Council Tax a person pays will depend on their income. If a person is of working age, this Council offers a maximum reduction of 72.5% of the overall Council Tax bill. This is in addition to any reduction offered to students or single occupants.
- This chronology includes key events in this case and does not cover everything that happened.
- Miss B moved into her current property on 25 January 2019. She applied for Universal Credit on the same date. Her application for Universal Credit to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) indicated that she also wanted to apply for CTS from the Council.
- The Council issued its first council tax bill to Miss B on 12 February 2019. This bill included a 25% reduction for single occupancy. The Council billed Miss B up to the end of March 2019 and explained it was too late in the financial year to offer payment by instalments. The Council issued an annual council tax bill for the next financial year (April 2019 to March 2020) on 4 March 2019, which also included the single occupancy discount.
- The Council sent Miss B a reminder for payment of the 2018/19 council tax on 4 March 2019. Miss B first responded by returning the reminder on 14 March 2019 with a note asking the Council to check the amount charged as she was claiming Universal Credit.
- The Council issued a summons for the outstanding 2018/19 council tax bill on 12 April 2019. The Council asked Miss B for immediate payment of the bill and court fee totalling £315.56 to avoid further legal action.
- Miss B returned the court summons to the Council on 23 April 2019. She included a note stating she applied for CTS at the same time as Universal Credit. She asked the Council to provide a paper CTS application form as she believed the online version she completed had not been received. She asked the Council to check the amounts it had calculated she owes as she believed these are incorrect.
- On 26 April 2019, the Council processed Miss B’s CTS application and recalculated the amount of council tax she owed for 2019/20. The Council reduced Miss B’s annual council tax by the maximum 72.5%, leaving an overall bill of £352.13 for the year. The Council issued a revised bill to Miss B on 30 April 2019.
- The Council wrote to Miss B on 1 May 2019. It explained it has adjusted Miss B’s council tax bill, but she still needed to make a payment towards the outstanding bill from 2018/19. The Council asked Miss B to either pay the full amount owed for 2018/19 or set up a special payment arrangement to pay in instalments.
- Miss B made a complaint to the Council on 5 May 2019. She said she was told her council tax bill would be approximately £2 per week and she believed the amount the Council had calculated was incorrect based on this earlier advice. Miss B said she felt the additional court costs the Council applied to the outstanding bill from 2018/19 was unfair and did not take account of her vulnerability due to her disability. Miss B asked the Council to waive the court costs and allow her to make payments in instalments.
- On 10 May 2019, the Council obtained a liability order against Miss B for the unpaid council tax from 2018/19. The Council referred collection of the debt owed under this order to enforcement agents on 13 May 2019. The agent issued a notice for payment of the liability to Miss B on 14 May 2019.
- Miss B made a stage two complaint to the Council on 21 May 2019 because she had not received a response to her complaint on 5 May.
- The Council responded to Miss B’s first complaint on 24 May 2019. It explained that it had overlooked Miss B’s CTS claim made via the DWP system on 25 January 2019. The Council apologised to Miss B for the oversight and confirmed it had adjusted Miss B’s council tax bill for 2018/19 to reflect the reduction she had applied for. The Council confirmed Miss B owed £156.29 for 2018/19. The Council also apologised that Miss B had had to complain to get this matter resolved.
- On 31 May 2019, the enforcement agent issued a notice of enforcement to Miss B for the outstanding 2018/19 council tax bill. The agent added a £75 compliance fee to the outstanding balance which meant Miss B owed £231.29. The agent issued three reminders to Miss B on 11, 24 June and 11 July 2019 when it received no response to earlier requests for payment. Miss B escalated her complaint to the Ombudsman on 12 June 2019.
- The enforcement agent attended Miss B’s property on 12 July 2019 and left a notice for payment of £466.29 within the seven days. The agent had added a further enforcement fee of £235 to the debt because Miss B had failed to respond to previous reminders for payment.
- On 12 July 2019, the Council issued a reminder to Miss B for an instalment payment towards the 2019/20 council tax bill. Miss B made payments totalling £102.13 towards the debt sometime shortly after this.
- The Council responded to Miss B’s stage two complaint on 1 August 2019. It explained it had revised the amount Miss B owed for 2018/19 to £63.79, to take account of the 72.5% reduction for CTS. The Council explained it had recalled this debt from the enforcement agents as the amount owed fell below the amount payable in costs (£92.50). The Council confirmed it had waived Miss B’s liability for all enforcement charges incurred on the 2018/19 debt. The Council also asked Miss B to restart paying instalments towards the 2019/20 council tax bill to avoid falling behind on these payments.
- Miss B responded to the Council’s stage two complaint response on 6 August 2019. She remained dissatisfied that it had taken eight months for the Council to rectify the amounts she should pay for council tax. Miss B complained that she had been put to unnecessary distress by the Council’s action. She asked the Council to take account of her circumstances and adjust payment dates to better align with her Universal Credit payments.
- The Council responded to Miss B on 12 August 2019. It explained it had reached the end of its internal complaints process and signposted her to the Ombudsman. The Council offered to meet with Miss B and advisers from the CAB to help her with paying council tax for her current property and the substantial council tax arrears owed from her previous address. The Council told Miss B it was keen to help her avoid reaching the same level of arrears in her current property.
- The Council wrote to Miss B on 16 August 2019 to request a payment instalment for the 2019/20 council tax bill. The Council wrote to Miss B again on 16 September 2019 to explain it could only offer payment dates for council tax on the first or 22nd of each month. The Council requested payment from Miss B towards the 2019/20 council tax bill on 1 October 2019. The Council issued a revised council tax bill to Miss B on 24 September 2019 which confirmed she still owed £313.79 for 2018/19 and 2019/20.
Was there fault causing injustice?
Council Tax Arrears for 2018/19
- The Council accepts it did not identify Miss B’s initial CTS claim in late January 2019 when it was made. This is fault and caused Miss B injustice. Miss B had to contact the Council on at least four occasions before the amount she owed for the 2018/19 council tax bill was corrected in August 2019. This caused unnecessary frustration and inconvenience to Miss B.
- The Council’s delay in correcting Miss B’s council tax bill led it to erroneously apply to the courts for a liability order for the unpaid debt. The Council’s subsequent referral to enforcement agents was unnecessary and caused avoidable distress to Miss B.
- The Council has since corrected the amount Miss B owes in council tax for 2018/19 and has recalled the debt from the enforcement agents. It has also waived all the enforcement charges that had been added to Miss B’s council tax arrears. While this places Miss B back in the position she would have been in but for the Council’s fault, I do not consider it goes far enough to remedy the injustice caused. Miss B contacted the Council on at least four occasions to highlight issues with its calculation of her council tax bill before the Council made the correct adjustments in August 2019. My recommended action below seeks to address the avoidable frustration and inconvenience caused to Miss B in having to repeatedly contact the Council to get her council tax bill corrected.
Council Tax Arrears for 2019/20
- The Council corrected its position of the amount Miss B owed for council tax in 2019/20 on 30 April 2019. While the slight delay has no doubt caused Miss B frustration, but I do not consider it caused sufficient injustice to warrant recommending personal remedy.
- Miss B appears to have paid two instalments towards the 2019/20 council tax bill, totalling £102.13. The Council has issued reminders to seek further regular payments from Miss B to help ensure she does not add to the arrears she accrued in the previous financial year.
- The Council has not pursued formal recovery action for the arrears owed in 2019/20. The Council has offered to meet with Miss B and the local CAB to see if it can find a way to help Miss B avoid accruing further council tax debt. The Council cannot be held at fault if Miss B has chosen not to attend the meeting offered.
- The Council took too long to recognise its error in the calculation of Miss B’s council tax bill for the period from 25 January to 31 March 2019. To remedy the injustice caused to Miss B described in paragraphs 30 to 32 above, the Council has agreed to make a payment of £100 to offset against Miss B’s current council tax bill. The Council should complete this action within one month of the date of my final decision.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold Miss B’s complaint. Miss B has been caused an injustice by the Council’s actions and it has agreed to provide a further remedy for that injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman