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Durham County Council (21 005 240)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 04 Jan 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained the Council handled his application for council tax reduction poorly, causing him distress. We found the Council at fault in the way it communicated on Mr X’s application. We recommend the Council apologise to Mr X and review the communication it sends out to council tax reduction applicants.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about the way the Council handled his application for council tax reduction (CTR) and the way it communicated with him when it needed more information. Mr X found himself paying more council tax than he believed he was liable for.

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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. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  3. 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 spoke to Mr X about his complaint and considered the information he has provided. I also considered all the information I received from the Council.
  2. I have considered statutory guidance on Council Tax and CTR as well as the Council’s own published process.
  3. I issued a draft decision to both parties. Mr X did not respond but I have considered the Council’s reply before reaching this final decision.

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What I found

Council tax and council tax reduction schemes

  1. The Local Government Finance Act 1992 gives local authorities the power to levy and collect a dwelling tax. This is known as council tax.
  2. Section 13A of the Act explains council tax should be reduced in accordance with the council tax reduction scheme that applies in a given council’s area. In addition to reducing council tax in accordance with a council’s reduction scheme, section 13A states councils have discretion to reduce the council tax to any further extent it sees fit. This includes the ability to reduce the council tax to nil.
  3. Councils should have a policy to say how it will decide whether to give discretionary council tax relief. If CTR is requested under Section 13A and the applicant is not satisfied with the outcome or the decision made by a council, then they can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal Service.

Durham County Council’s Section 13A policy

  1. The Council’s Section 13A policy explains anyone liable to pay council tax can apply for a reduction.
  2. The Council will tell applicants what evidence it needs to assess an application and they should provide this within a month. The Council will consider applications and then write to the applicant with their outcome, why it made that decision and by how much it will reduce their bill, if at all.
  3. Applicants can then ask for further explanations or for the Council to take another look at its decision. If the applicant still disagrees, they can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.

What happened

  1. On 15 October 2020, Mr X applied for CTR. Mr X declared he was self-employed and receiving Child Benefit and Child Tax and Working Tax Credit. As part of the application, Mr X was asked to provide certified accounts for the previous year’s trading. Or if this was not possible, a completed Self-Employed Earnings Information form which the Council would provide.
  2. On 10 November 2020 Mr X provided a balance sheet and profit and loss accounts for the previous financial year, and a tax credits award letter. However, these documents were not certified by a qualified accountant. Mr X also attached a letter asking the Council to let him know if there were any issues with his application.
  3. On 20 November 2020 the Council marked Mr X’s application as “defective” as it did not feel it had the right information to determine his self-employed earnings. The Council wrote to Mr X that day to communicate its decision.
  4. The letter stated “We asked you to provide further information to complete your claim. You were given one month to provide this evidence, however my records indicate that it has still not been received.” The letter did not acknowledge what documents the Council received from Mr X or why these were not acceptable.
  5. The letter went on to ask Mr X to submit a Self-Employed Earnings Information Form. It also explained Mr X would need to provide this within one month for the Council to reconsider his claim.
  6. On 26 November 2020 Mr X re-sent the documents he had provided on 10 November 2020. Again, Mr X included a letter asking for the Council to contact him if it needed anything else.
  7. On 16 February 2021 Mr X submitted a complaint to the Council about the lack of communication on his CTR application.
  8. The Council responded to Mr X on 17 March 2021. It explained it could not accept the information he had provided as an accountant had not prepared it. The Council explained Mr X would be free to submit a new application if he wished.
  9. On 18 March 2021 Mr X asked for his complaint to be considered at stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure.
  10. The Council wrote to Mr X again on 15 April 2021. It stood by the decision of 17 March 2021 but offered to reconsider the CTR application if Mr X provided a completed Self-Employed Earnings Information Form within a month.
  11. Mr X emailed the Council on 20 April 2021 with a completed copy of the Self-Employed Earnings Information Form and a letter asking the Council to let him know if it needed anything else. However, the Council only received the letter and the first page of the form.
  12. On 10 June 2021 the Council wrote out to Mr X asking him to complete a new CTR application form. This was followed up with another letter inviting Mr X to submit a new application on 17 June 2021.
  13. Mr X contacted the Ombudsman in July 2021 as he was unhappy with the way the Council handled his CTR application.
  14. On 25 October 2021 we wrote to the Council to request information. We provided the Council with the relevant documentation we held, including the full Self-Employed Earnings Information Form.
  15. Throughout this time, Mr X continued to receive bills and chasers for non-payment, as well as threats of collections action in the courts.
  16. In November 2021 the Council reviewed Mr X’s original CTR application in light of the full Self-Employed Earnings Information Form.
  17. The Council decided to award Mr X £30.72 per week towards his council tax bill for the period 14 September 2020 to 31 March 2021. It also awarded Mr X £31.80 per week towards his council tax bill for the period 1 April 2021 to 8 July 2021, when Mr X moved to a new address. The Council awarded Mr X £24.73 per week towards his council tax bill from 9 July 2021 onwards.
  18. These awards, and the removal of court costs, meant Mr X’s council tax account went into a credit of £393.33 which the Council agreed to refund to him.

Analysis

  1. The Council quickly responded Mr X’s initial application for CTR but it did not follow its published process. The Council did not tell Mr X what was wrong with his documentation.
  2. There is fault in the way the Council communicated its initial decision to Mr X as it was not clear in setting out why his documents were unacceptable. This created an injustice to Mr X as it meant there was a delay in him being able to provide the information needed for the Council to consider his application.
  3. Once Mr X re-submitted his documentation it seems the Council waited almost four months to explain what the issue was. Even then, it took Mr X raising a complaint about the lack of communication to get an answer. The Council is at fault here as it should have responded to Mr X to let him know if there was an issue with his application so he could act.
  4. The Council was also at fault for delays in the process once Mr X submitted his Self-Employment Information Form in April 2021. It should have been clear to the Council there was an error when it only received one page of the form. The Council could have resolved this quickly by asking Mr X to re-send the document. This led to more chasing from Mr X for a situation that the Council could have clarified quickly.
  5. The Council has now revisited Mr X’s CTR application and agreed to backdate the awards it made. However, there were several delays because of unclear communication by the Council. The delays here were avoidable and would have caused Mr X a lot of distress which was compounded by the chasers and threats of court action he received.
  6. I asked the Council if it had received reports of other service users having issues sending documents electronically where not all pages were received. The Council confirmed this is an isolated incident and it does not have a record of any other service users having similar issues. It is not clear why this happened in Mr X’s case but I am satisfied it is not a wider issue.

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Agreed action

  1. I recommend the Council carry out the following actions within one month of my final decision:
    • Provide Mr X with a written apology for the level of communication he received throughout this process.
    • Make a payment to Mr X of £150 to recognise the distress suffered.
    • Remind its staff of its council tax reduction published process and the need to give clear reasons for the decisions they make.
  2. The Council has accepted my recommendations.

Final decision

  1. I found the Council to be at fault with the way it has handled Mr X’s CTR application and made the recommendations set out above. The Council has now agreed to my recommendations. I consider this a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Mr X and have completed my investigation on this basis.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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