Blaby Council did not exercise proper control over bailiffs it employed to collect council tax debts.
The Ombudsman said: “I am issuing this report in the public interest because the practice of bailiffs’ ‘double charging’ for visits is not uncommon. These bailiffs were acting on behalf of the Council and it was within the Council’s control to contractually curb excessive charges by the bailiffs. I would expect local authorities and their agents to consider the reasonableness of their practice in this area in future and I am pleased that this Council has now done so.”
She added: “The Council has an obligation to collect council tax and to pursue people who do not pay. Mrs S has not paid her council tax for some considerable time. She also failed to honour the payment arrangements made to clear the debt. So the Council was entitled to take enforcement action against her, including instructing bailiffs. But the Council should ensure that the bailiffs who act on its behalf comply with the relevant regulations and that debtors are charged only sums which are properly due. It is clear this did not happen in Mrs S’s case.”
Mrs S owed arrears of council tax. She complained that bailiffs employed by the Council to collect her council tax arrears had not acted within the law and had overcharged her. She also complained that the Council failed to properly answer her queries and complaints about these issues, including a serious allegation that four bailiffs tried to break into Mrs S’s property and obtained money from her partner by clamping and taking occupation of a car that was not his.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that the Council failed to exercise proper control over the actions of its bailiffs and the fees it charged. The bailiffs had charged eight visit fees (because Mrs S had arrears for eight years: ie there were eight accounts) on two occasions for one visit by one bailiff, and failed to carry out DVLA checks on the ownership of the vehicles. The Council also failed to properly investigate Mrs S’s complaints until she complained to the Ombudsman. These faults caused Mrs S stress and anxiety, and she had to take significant time and trouble in pursuing her complaints with the Council and the bailiffs.
Once the Ombudsman became involved the Council:
- reduced the fees charged by £630.50
- carried out DVLA checks on the vehicles, which showed they did not belong either to Mrs S or her partner, so removed the remaining levies and associated fees, and
- negotiated a new contract with its bailiffs only allowing one fee to be charged for one visit even where multiple accounts are involved.
The Ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice, and was pleased that the Council agreed to pay £300 to Mrs S for the distress and inconvenience she was caused, which it offset against the outstanding council tax arrears. The Ombudsman urged Mrs S to enter into a reliable regular payment arrangement with the Council to avoid future action, such as an attachment of earnings either through her or her partner.
Remedy agreed with Council prior to publication: 10 July 2012