The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complains about how the Council charged him Council Tax and dealt with overpayments it collected from him. The Council was at fault for not repaying Mr B the excess payments. This caused him avoidable frustration and inconvenience. The Council should ensure its staff are aware of its policy about repayments and review the information on its website about repayments.
- Mr B complained that the Council:
- Collected Council Tax payments at the full rate when he was not liable because he was in custody;
- Did not reply to letters he wrote to the Council or take any action regarding them;
- Failed to repay Council Tax overpayments to him as he requested;
- Refused to pay interest on Council Tax payments that the Council took from him when it shouldn’t;
- Charged him Council Tax for a full day when he was released;
- Failed to take account of his disability when dealing with him.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
- When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr B and considered his complaint. I looked at documents the Council and Mr B sent about their involvement in Mr B’s case.
- Both Mr B and the Council have had the opportunity to make comments on this decision.
What I found
- A person shall be disregarded for the purposes of discount on a particular day if he is detained in a prison. (Local Government Finance Act 1992, Schedule 1, section 1(a))
- Liability to pay council tax shall be determined on a daily basis and for each day it shall be assumed that any state of affairs subsisting at the end of the day had subsisted throughout the day. (Local Government Finance Act 1992, Part I, section 2)
- Council Tax overpayments should be repaid if the liable person so requires. (Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 regulation 24(2)(a))
- “If you have received a council tax bill showing that you have paid more council tax than you should have, we will automatically refund you as long as you don't owe us money for any other council debt. If you pay by direct debit, we will send the money to the bank or building society account we have on record for you. “ (https://www.eastriding.gov.uk/housing/council-tax/council-tax-payments/)
- Mr B was receiving Council Tax Support from the Council. Mr B paid Council Tax of £38 each month by direct debit.
- Mr B was remanded in custody on 20 October 2017. Mr B wrote to the Council advising it he was in custody on 5 November 2017. He asked for his direct debit to be stopped and for any excess payments already taken to be refunded to him.
- On receipt of Mr B’s letter, the Council cancelled his claim for Council Tax Support and wrote to the Prisoner Location Service for confirmation of his detention.
- When Mr B’s Council Tax support claim was cancelled, the Council recalculated his Council Tax instalments based on full Council Tax liability for the remainder of the tax year. On this recalculation, his Council Tax payments increased and the Council took £287 by direct debit on 27 December 2017.
- The Council received confirmation from the Prisoner Location Service of Mr B’s detention on 15 January 2018.
- Mr B’s Council Tax account shows that at the end of the financial year 2017/18, excess payments of Council Tax totalling £372.15 were collected by the Council from him.
- When confirmation of the date of Mr B’s detention was received in January, and the Council applied the appropriate Council Tax exemption, it did not revisit Mr B’s letter received on 3 November. The request for a refund he made in that letter was overlooked.
- The Council applied the overpaid amount to Mr B’s Council Tax account for 2018.
- Mr B was released from custody on 10 April 2018. The Council was notified of his release from prison the same day.
- Mr B went to the Council offices on 16 April 2018. He was advised that there was no need to resubmit his Council Tax Support claim as it was already registered.
- The Council processed Mr B’s Council Tax bill on 24 April 2018. At this stage Mr B had not submitted a new claim for Council Tax Support and therefore there was no deduction in respect of this on his Council Tax bill.
- On receipt of the Council Tax bill, Mr B returned to the Council offices on 30 April 2018. He was unable to complete an online application for Council Tax Support in the office. He went to a library and submitted a Council Tax Support claim from there.
- Mr B emailed the Council on 30 April 2018 asking it again to pay the excess payment of £372.15 to his bank account.
- The Council replied to Mr B on 2 May 2018 confirming that he was liable for Council Tax from 10 April 2018, that his claim for Council Tax Support was being looked at and that a credit of £372.15 had been deducted from his Council Tax liability for 2018/19.
- On 7 May 2018, the Council refunded the £372.15 to Mr B.
- Mr B’s Council Tax Support claim was processed on 11 June 2018 with an effective date of 7 May 2018, the Monday after his claim was received.
- Following receipt of his Council Tax bill for 2018/19, Mr B contacted the Council by email on 17 and 18 June 2018. He asked for his Council Tax Support to be backdated to his release date of 10 April 2018 and for an explanation of the calculation of the amount of Council Tax Support granted.
- The Council responded to Mr B on 19 June 2018 providing a detailed explanation of his Council Tax Support claim and that the backdating of his Council Tax Support claim was being considered.
- On 20 June 2018, the Council confirmed to Mr B that it had backdated his Council Tax Support claim to 10 April 2018.
Calculation and collection of Council Tax
- When Mr B told the Council that he was in prison, it was proper for it to confirm that information.
- When the Council received confirmation that Mr B was in prison, it applied an exemption for the correct dates. The recalculation of Mr B’s Council Tax liability was correct.
- This left an excess payment for the financial year 2017/18 of £372.15 on Mr B’s Council Tax account. I do not consider this to be fault by the Council.
Replying and responding to letters
- Mr B says he sent the Council two letters about his Council Tax. The Council say that it only has one letter from Mr B, that he sent on 22 October 2017.
- The Council did act on the letter to it dated 22 October 2017, as it cancelled Mr B’s Council Tax Support claim and sought confirmation that he was in prison.
- Even if the Council had received a second letter, Mr B would have suffered no greater injustice regarding his repayment of Council Tax because the Council accept it should have acted on the information in the first letter. I do not consider this to be fault by the Council.
Repayment of excess Council Tax paid
- Mr B clearly expressed a wish for the Council to repay any overpayment.
- The Council has said that it overlooked Mr B’s initial request to refund any excess payments when it applied his Council Tax exemption. However, the Council also said that it was entitled to apply Mr B’s overpayment to his Council Tax account rather than repay it to him.
- The Council later repaid the excess amount on 7 May 2018 after Mr B again asked it to do this on 30 April 2018.
- I note that the Council relied on a selective part of the law which was incorrect, and ignored its own stated policy on its website, when it considered whether it should have repaid Mr B’s Council Tax overpayments.
- I consider this to be fault by the Council because it failed to comply with Mr B’s clear request, that the Council agree it was aware of. Mr B was left in a difficult financial position on his release which would have been made easier had the Council acted in accordance with his request.
Interest on Council Tax overpayments
- There is no provision in law for the payment of interest on overpayments. I do not consider this to be fault by the Council.
Charging Council Tax for a full day on his release
- The Council was entitled to base its charge on the assumption of Mr B’s situation at the end of the day. The wording of the statute implies an acceptance that evidence may contradict that assumption.
- Mr B says that he has evidence that on the day of his release he only arrived home late in the evening and considers the strict application of the Act unfair.
- The Council has said that the award of a discretionary discount is subject to individual application as indicated on the Council’s website. The Council says it has not received an application from Mr B. The Council’s website publishes details of the Discretionary Reduction Scheme.
- When the Council responded by email on 6 July 2018 to Mr B’s request for his exemption to include the day of his release, it did not make him aware of the opportunity for him to apply for discretionary discount.
- Mr B can still apply for a discretionary discount and send the Council the evidence to support his claim. This will give the Council the opportunity to consider an application and reach a decision. I do not consider this to be fault by the Council.
Taking account of Mr B’s disability
- Mr B uses a wheelchair outside for 90% of the time due to mobility problems. Mr B says he was in his wheelchair when he went to the customer service centre on 30 April 2018.
- Mr B says he was unable to make his application online at the customer service centre on 30 April 2018. The Council operate a system that allows for pre-booked appointments at its customer service centres.
- The Council had previously sent Mr B a letter on 4 January 2017 advising him of the process and alternative ways to make a claim, including arranging an appointment at the Customer Service Centre. Mr B did not arrange an appointment on 30 April. The Council offered Mr B the opportunity to return for a pre-booked appointment but he declined to do so. Mr B had made claims previously and so would have been aware of the options available to him.
- Staff at the Customer Service Centre scanned Mr B’s documents so he did not have to return to provide them. Mr B went to a local library and made his application from there.
- The Council say Mr B volunteered to go to the library and that if he had indicated this wasn’t suitable, staff would have considered and provided alternative options.
- Mr B says the Council did not advise him to go to the library. He says he had to travel to the library in his wheelchair to make his claim online or return to the customer service centre for a pre-booked appointment.
- The Council have acknowledged an oversight when dealing with Mr B’s Council Tax, which resulted in the overpayment not being repaid to Mr B immediately, and has apologised to Mr B for this.
- This goes some way to remedying the injustice caused. But to prevent a similar situation reoccurring in the future, I also recommend that within four weeks of my final decision the Council:
- Ensures all its Council Tax staff are aware of the Council’s policy regarding making repayments, and review the information about this on its website.
- The Council was at fault because it did not refund Mr B his Council Tax overpayment as he requested. I am satisfied the action the Council will take is sufficient to remedy his injustice. I have now completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman