Wokingham Borough Council (18 007 557)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 19 Dec 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council delayed in seeking to recover council tax arrears, causing him distress. The Ombudsman finds the Council’s delay amounts to fault and recommends it waives the debt and takes action to prevent recurrence.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council delayed in chasing him for a debt on his council tax account. He can no longer prove he has paid the debt and says he has suffered stress due to the Council’s recovery action.

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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 may investigate matters coming to our attention during an investigation, if we consider that a member of the public who has not complained may have suffered an injustice as a result. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26D and 34E, 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 and reviewed documents provided by Mr X and the Council. I gave Mr X and the Council to comment on a draft of this decision and I considered the comments provided.

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What I found

  1. The law says people must pay their council tax before the instalment date on the bill.
  2. If someone fails to pay their council tax the council sends a reminder. If the person still does not pay the council can demand they pay the full amount which is due for the rest of the year.
  3. If the debt remains unpaid the council can serve a summons and ask the magistrates’ court for a liability order. A liability order is a court order confirming the person must pay the amounts due plus costs. The court must grant an order if it is satisfied the sum has become payable and has not been paid. If someone wants to dispute a liability order they must appeal to the High Court. If payment is still not made the council may pass the account to bailiffs.

Council complaints policy

  1. The Council publishes its complaints policy on its website. This says if it cannot resolve a complaint at the first attempt it will investigate and respond within 15 days. If a person remains unhappy with this stage 1 response they can go to stage 2. It aims to respond to stage 2 complaints within 20 days. If a person remains unhappy they can then contact the Ombudsman.

What happened

  1. In 2004 Mr X had an outstanding debt on his council tax account.
  2. The Council has evidenced it sent a reminder for payment to Mr X in May 2004. It issued a summons in June 2004 and, it was granted a liability order in August 2004.
  3. Mr X agreed payment plans with the Council, the last being set up in 2006.
  4. On 14 October 2006 the outstanding debt was £1139.63 and Mr X was due to pay £230 per month to the Council from 15 January 2007 to clear this debt. In correspondence of the same date the Council explained that failure to stick to the arrangement would result in it taking further action to recover the amount.
  5. On 11 January 2007 the Council told Mr X it had put this account on hold, while it focused on recovering sums due on another account.
  6. On 9 August 2017 the Council sent Mr X a letter, warning it would now take enforcement action to recover the debt.
  7. Mr X contacted the Council to explain he was unaware of the debt and believed he had already paid all sums owed. The Council put debt collection action on hold to allow him time to provide bank statements to evidence payment. However, Mr X could not get bank statements dating back to the relevant period. The Council then continued to hold debt collection action while Mr X completed its complaints process.
  8. On 26 April 2018 Mr X complained to the Council as he believed he had already paid the sums owed. The Council confirmed it had received partial payment in 2004 but the sum of £1139.63 remained outstanding. It agreed to keep the case on hold with the debt collection agency (“DCA”) until 1 June 2018.
  9. On 21 May 2018 Mr X asked to go to stage 2. However, the Council delayed in progressing the complaint and the DCA contacted Mr X in the meantime.
  10. The Council provided its stage 2 response on 8 August 2018 and apologised for its delay. It outlined the actions taken on Mr X’s account and confirmed the debt remained due. It told Mr X he could contact the Ombudsman if he remained unhappy.
  11. Mr X says he paid the amount owed directly to the DCA in 2007, but his bank no longer has account records for that period. He says he was caused further stress when the DCA contacted him during the complaints process.
  12. In response to my enquiries the Council said it had already apologised for its late stage 2 response and this was due to human error.

Findings

  1. The Council followed the correct process in billing Mr X and seeking recovery of council tax arrears up until 2007.
  2. The Council placed Mr X’s account on hold in 2007. However, it did not contact Mr X about the account again for ten years. I consider this was such a significant delay that it amounts to fault.
  3. The Council says Mr X did not clear the debt and its records show the last payments he made on the account were in 2004. Mr X says he did clear the debt by paying the DCA, but he cannot evidence he did so.
  4. The Council is legally entitled to recover the debt but it is at fault for seeking to do so after an unreasonable amount of time. The Council’s fault has prevented Mr X from getting the evidence he needs to prove he paid the debt. He was also put to time and trouble in seeking to obtain proof of payment. To remedy this fault, I will recommend the Council write off the debt.
  5. I am mindful that other members of the public may be affected if the Council routinely puts accounts on hold. I will therefore make recommendations to prevent recurrence of this fault.
  6. The Council delayed in providing its stage 2 response and this resulted in the DCA contacting Mr X unexpectedly. Mr X says this caused him further distress. I therefore find fault causing injustice. However, I note the Council has already apologised for this. And, I consider no further remedy is due.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice set out above I recommend the Council carry out the following actions:
    • Write off Mr X’s council tax debt, within one month of the date of this decision;
    • Reviews its processes and consider whether to limit the amount of time it will leave any account on hold and;
    • Put a process in place to ensure it updates council tax account holders at least once a year, if their account is on hold for more than one year. The Council should take these actions within three months of the date of this decision.
  2. The Council has accepted my recommendations.

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Final decision

  1. I find the Council’s significant delay in seeking to recover council tax arrears amounts to fault. The Council has accepted my recommendations and so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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