The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr Y complains the Council wrongly addressed a council tax bill for a property he is liable for. As a result, Mr Y says he has incurred avoidable enforcement fees. The Ombudsman finds no fault in the Council’s actions because the bill was correctly addressed to those with joint and several liability for the property.
- The complainant, whom I will call Mr Y, complains that he has incurred avoidable enforcement fees because of the Council’s failure to correctly address a council tax bill for a property he is liable for.
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)
- 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
- During my investigation I have
- Considered the information submitted by Mr Y and gave him the opportunity to discuss the complaint with me by telephone;
- Made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
- Consulted the relevant law and guidance around council tax liability; and
- Issued a draft decision to the Council and Mr Y, and considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Local Government Finance Act (LGFA) sets out the hierarchy of liability for each chargeable dwelling. There is joint and several liability, as per Section 6(4), for joint freeholders, leaseholders, tenants, licensees, squatters and owners. This means all the liable people are responsible for paying the whole charge.
- The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations (1992) says that the Council will serve “…a notice in writing on every liable person in accordance with regulations 19 to 21”
- Mr Y advised the Council in December 2011 that all matters relating to the council tax for a property he owns were to be managed by his son, Mr X. Mr Y reiterated this in March and again in April 2016 when he wrote to the Council providing Mr X’s correspondence address.
- The property in question was tenanted until 26 October 2016 when those tenants left. Mr Y informed the Council of this on 29 November. He said that a new tenant had moved into the property on 26 November. This meant there was a period of almost one month when the property was empty, creating a bill of £81.87. As per the hierarchy of liability, and in the absence of any new tenants, Mr Y was liable for the council tax during this period.
- The Council sent the bill to Mr X’s address on 26 April, as per Mr Y’s previous instruction. Mr Y was named as the addressee on that bill. He does not live with Mr X. The bill was returned to the Council by the recipient as ‘addressee unknown’.
- On 25 May the Council issued a reminder letter to Mr X’s address. It says this letter was not returned. When Mr Y did not make payment, the Council issued a summons on 22 June 2017. The summons was returned to the Council on 10 July as ‘addressee gone away’ with a handwritten note to say, “does not live at this address”, at which point the Council reissued all correspondence to Mr Y’s home address.
- The courts granted a liability order on 18 July and recovery costs of £135 were applied. When Mr Y did not arrange payment, the Council passed the case to its enforcement agents on 21 July, creating a further cost.
- Mr Y then contacted the Council on 2 August to update his correspondence address. The Council re-issued all documentation. However Mr Y was unhappy with the approach taken by the Council, so he complained. The Council did not uphold the complaint. Mr Y approached the Ombudsman.
Was there fault causing injustice in the Council’s actions?
- I have considered email exchanges between Mr Y and the Council. These confirm that Mr X received the bill in question. On 27 February 2018, Mr Y wrote: “the disputed invoice, which was returned to you was addressed to me only. The invoice was not appropriately invoiced and it could not be paid in any case, neither it could have been legally opened by my son. Even if the letter were handed over to me, it would still not be paid as it did not have appropriate addresses”
- Again, on 9 May, Mr Y confirmed: “as regards to the invoice in dispute, you have sent invoices and all following penalties, on my name but to his address. All correspondence were [sic] returned to you”
- I have also seen proof that, on more than on occasion, Mr Y made clear that Mr X was overseeing the council tax accounts for the properties Mr Y is liable for. Mr Y was clear that the council tax bills should only be posted to Mr X’s address.
- The Council adhered to this request. However, the bills were in Mr and Mrs Y’s name. Mr Y says this is incorrect; the Council should have addressed the bill to both himself and Mr X. As the above quoted email shows, Mr Y is of the view that Mr X had no entitlement to open post addressed to Mr Y. But the other correspondence makes clear that Mr Y had an arrangement with Mr X to oversee the council tax bills. Mr X could and should have passed the bills to Mr Y, rather than returning them to the Council, especially since Mr X and Mr Y live on the same road.
- The Council is not at fault for naming Mr Y on the bill. The regulations make clear that the bill is to be served on those with joint and severable liability. The Council checked the Land Registry records, and established that Mr X was neither the owner or the tenant of the property in question, and so he does not appear on the hierarchy of liability. Therefore it could not put the bill in his name.
- The Ombudsman does not uphold this complaint as there is no fault in the approach taken by the Council.
- I have completed my investigation with a finding of no fault for the reasons explained in this statement.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman