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Tandridge District Council (20 008 818)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 25 May 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complained the Council ignored that she was a joint tenant and paid her the wrong amount of council tax reduction. There was fault with how the Council awarded Miss X council tax reduction and investigated her complaint. The Council offered to write off the overpayment. It also agreed to apologise, pay Miss X a financial remedy for the distress and frustration it caused and arrange affordable repayments for any remaining arrears. We are satisfied with the agreed remedies and have therefore completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complained the Council awarded her the wrong amount of council tax reduction when she applied in April 2020. She said when the Council realised its mistake it recalculated her council tax, leaving her in arrears. Miss X also said the Council ignored her emails. She said this caused her distress, frustration and worry about being able to afford her council tax payments. She wanted the Council to apologise for its mistake and pay her a financial remedy to recognise the distress she said it caused.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information provided by Miss X and discussed the complaint with her.
  2. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting information it provided.
  3. Miss X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Council tax reduction overpayments

  1. Council tax reduction (CTR, also known as council tax support) is a discount, not a benefit. If someone is paid too much CTR the Council can reduce the amount of CTR and so increase the amount of council tax owed. We call these changes CTR reversals. Sometimes reversals are created because the Council has miscalculated the CTR, perhaps ignoring information it had, or using information it should not have used.
  2. If the Council’s CTR Scheme says how it deals with challenges to reversals (sometimes called ‘overpayments’) a claimant can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. If the scheme does not say how the Council will deal with CTR reversals the claimant cannot appeal.
  3. The Council’s CTR scheme does not mention how it deals with CTR reversals or overpayments.

Background

  1. Miss X rents a property jointly with her son. Until March 2020, Miss X’s son worked abroad, and Miss X was entitled to a discount on her council tax because she lived in her home alone.
  2. Miss X previously complained to the Council about mistakes it made taking her monthly council tax payments in late 2019 and early 2020. In response to this complaint, the Council agreed, in May 2020, to write off Miss X’s outstanding council tax for 2019-20.

What happened

  1. In March 2020, Miss X’s son returned to live with her. Miss X told the Council about this and asked it to remove her single person discount, which it did.
  2. In late April 2020, Miss X claimed CTR because she could not work and was receiving Universal Credit. On her CTR application form she gave details of her son and ticked the box on the application form to say that he was a joint tenant with her. She also provided the Council with of copy of her joint tenancy agreement.
  3. Despite what Miss X put on her application form, the Council awarded CTR as if she was a sole tenant. This meant the Council treated Miss X as being responsible for the full council tax, rather than her half of the bill.
  4. The Council agreed monthly direct debits with Miss X for the rest of the year, to start from 1 June 2020. It agreed this with Miss X at the same time it wrote off the remaining balance for 2019-20. Miss X asked the Council for assurance that these new payments were correct, because of the previous errors, and the Council assured her they were.
  5. The Council did not take the June direct debit. Instead, it sent Miss X a new instalment arrangement for July 2020 to March 2021. The Council then took monthly payments in July and August according to this new schedule.
  6. In September 2020, Miss X applied for a discretionary housing payment to help with her rent. When processing Miss X’s application, the Council realised that she and her son were joint tenants.
  7. The Council recalculated Miss X’s CTR in October 2020, this time basing the calculation on half the council tax bill. The Council decided Miss X had been ‘overpaid’ CTR by around £380 and it added this amount to Miss X’s council tax bill.
  8. Miss X complained to the Council in November 2020 about the changes to her CTR. She pointed out she had told the Council her son was a joint tenant when she applied and the Council had ignored this information. She told the Council she considered it responsible for the overpayments and it had told her the instalments it arranged with her in June were correct.
  9. The Council responded to Miss X’s complaint in December. It told her it had:
    • not investigated her tenancy because she had only applied for CTR;
    • calculated her CTR as if she was the sole tenant;
    • only realised this was wrong in September 2020; and
    • now corrected her award, so she had to pay the new amount.
  10. Miss X and the Council exchanged further emails during December 2020. The Council maintained that Miss X had not told it her son was a joint tenant with her. The Council also failed to reply to several emails Miss X sent.

The Council’s response to my enquiries

  1. In its first response to my enquiries the Council said Miss X had not told it she and her son were joint tenants. It told me that “The options on the form also require tenancy details such as ‘Are they a Joint Tenant with you?’. It was stated on the form that [Miss X’s son] was not a joint tenant.” and that “He was also not stated as being a joint tenant on the form.”.
  2. The Council included a copy of Miss X’s CTR application form which showed that, in response to the question ‘Are they a Joint Tenant with you?’ Miss X had clearly ticked ‘Yes’.
  3. The Council later conceded that Miss X had told it she was a joint tenant when she applied for CTR in April 2020. It proposed to write off the ‘overpaid’ CTR between 2 March 2020 and 28 October 2020 (the date it recalculated Miss X’s CTR).

My findings

  1. Miss X’s application form clearly shows she told the Council, when she applied, that she and her son were joint tenants. The Council ignored this information when it first calculated her CTR.
  2. The Council now accepts this and that it should have realised she was a joint tenant from her application form. Its failure to do so was fault which caused Miss X to owe more council tax than the Council assured her she would in June 2020. Miss X also now needs to pay these arrears when she is paying her current council tax for 2021-22.
  3. The Council’s offer to write off the CTR reversal for the period it ‘overpaid’ Miss X CTR is a suitable remedy for that injustice.
  4. However, when it resolved Miss X’s previous complaint in May 2020, the Council undertook to write off the outstanding balance for 2019-20. The evidence shows the Council waited until it had calculated Miss X’s CTR before writing off the remaining balance. Since the Council was responsible for the CTR award being wrong, the Council should honour that undertaking and also write off any remaining council tax for 2019-20, after it has written off the CTR reversal.
  5. The evidence shows that Miss X pointed out she had completed her application form correctly several times to the Council after she complained. However, the Council maintained that she had not, including in its response to my enquiries, despite having evidence to the contrary.
  6. I am satisfied the Council failed to investigate Miss X’s complaint properly. This was fault which caused avoidable distress, time and trouble to Miss X in having to complain and made her feel ignored by the Council. Considering the assurance the Council gave to Miss X in June about her liability for 2020-21, I am satisfied that a financial remedy for this distress and frustration is appropriate.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council will:
    • apologise to Miss X for the mistake and for not investigating her complaint properly;
    • write off the £384.33 CTR reversal, as it had offered, and reduce Miss X’s council tax bills accordingly;
    • write off any remaining council tax for 2019-20;
    • pay Miss X £200 for the distress, frustration, time and trouble caused by its failure to investigate her complaint properly; and
    • offer Miss X an affordable repayment plan, based on an assessment of her income and expenditure, for any remaining council tax for 2020-21.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold Miss X’s complaint. There was fault with how the Council awarded Miss X council tax reduction and investigated her complaint. The Council offered to write-off the overpayment. It also agreed to apologise, pay Miss X a financial remedy for the distress and frustration it caused and arrange affordable repayments for any remaining arrears.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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