The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complained about the Council not sending large print paper copies of her council tax bills. The Council did not do so because she had signed up to ebilling. It has now ended this and will send her paper bills in the future.
- Miss B complains that North Somerset Council (the Council) failed to send her large print council tax bills so she was unable to notice a mistake in her entitlement to council tax support and was out of time to appeal the decision. The Council also refused to take her complaint over the telephone and insisted she complete an on-line form which she was unable to do.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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 Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
- 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 complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Miss B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- Miss B has a visual impairment and requested the Council send documents and correspondence in large print. She has also regularly since 2013 viewed her council tax account on-line.
- On 16 February 2015 Miss B subscribed to the Council’s e-billing service for council tax. This means that the Council no longer sends out paper bills. The Council’s records show that she has viewed her council tax account on-line regularly since then. She viewed her e-bill in May 2017 and March 2018.
- In addition she requested a copy of her bill for 2017 in large print. The Council sent her a manually adjusted copy which contained the name of the Council officer who had produced the bill. Miss B was unhappy with this and did not understand why his name appeared on her bill.
- In April 2018 she unsubscribed from ebilling by telephone call to the Council.
- In May 2018 she says she tried to complain by telephone about the fact she had not received a bill and about her entitlement to council tax support. She said the Council refused to let her make a complaint by telephone and said she had to complain online. She said she could not do this.
- The Council said that in late April/early May Miss B made several calls to the Revenues and Benefits Helpline and requested a call back from a manager. A manager called Miss B on 3 May 2018 and advised her that her appeal had to be in writing. The manager arranged for an officer to visit Miss B.
- An officer visited on 9 May 2018 and took down details of the appeal. They also included the lack of a large print paper council tax bill. The Council also responded to her appeal on 24 May 2018. It upheld its decision and gave the details to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal if she disagreed with it. The decision was in large print.
- In the meantime Miss B complained to us and we asked the Council to respond to the complaint. The Council sent a reply on 11 June 2018. It explained that she had not received paper bills as she had signed up to ebilling for council tax. It also explained that when she requested a large print paper copy, it could only be done manually and that was why an officer’s name was included. It said the council was dealing with her appeal and she was currently entitled to the maximum council tax support of 75.5%.
- Miss B subscribed to online ebilling in February 2015. After that date the Council did not automatically send her paper copies of her annual council tax bill, unless she requested it.
- The Council has now restored Miss B back to paper billing in accordance with her request but I cannot find fault with its actions prior to this date: Miss B signed dup to the terms of the ebilling and so agreed not to receive paper bills.
- Miss B accessed her council tax account regularly between 2015 and 2018 and viewed her bills online so I do not consider she was caused an injustice by not receiving paper bills.
- The Council has explained why the bills she did receive contained another person’s name.
- There was some confusion over whether Miss B wished to make an appeal and/or a complaint. She should have been able to make a complaint over the telephone. However the Council arranged for a home visit to ascertain the details and the Council then responded to both her appeal and complaint. I cannot find fault with its actions.
- Miss B said she made many requests to end ebilling during this period, many via her support worker from the housing association. I have asked the Council for these records. It has provided four emails, mainly about benefit issues, but none refer to ebillling. Miss B says there must be more but the Council has been unable to find any. In the absence of any further evidence I am unable to change my view.
- I have completed my investigation into this complaint as I am unable to find fault causing injustice in the actions of the Council towards Miss B.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman