Plymouth City Council (18 008 649)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Jan 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: It was fault for the Council to send correspondence to Miss Z about a Council Tax debt rather than to Mrs X who was authorised to handle her account. Miss Z was distressed when an enforcement agent visited her to recover the debt. Matters would not have reached this stage if the Council Tax records had been accurately updated and correspondence had been sent to Mrs X instead. The Council has accepted my findings and agreed to provide a suitable remedy.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X made this complaint on behalf of her adult granddaughter, Miss Z, who has mental health issues, with her written consent.
  2. Mrs X complains that the Council failed to update its records for Miss Z’s Council Tax account. As a result, it sent correspondence about Miss Z’s Council Tax arrears, including a final reminder notice and summons, to her instead of to Mrs X.
  3. Mrs X says Miss Z did not open any of the letters. The non-payment of Council Tax led the Council to take action to recover the debt. It passed the account to a firm of civil enforcement agents who visited Miss Z in July 2018.
  4. Mrs X says Miss Z was very distressed by the visit. She says this would not have happened if the Council had sent the Council Tax notices and correspondence to her.

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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. 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 have discussed the complaint with Mrs X. I considered the Council’s comments and evidence it provided from Miss Z’s Housing Benefit and Council Tax records.
  2. I have written to Mrs X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.

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What I found

  1. Miss Z is a social housing tenant who lives alone. She suffers from chronic depression and anxiety and has a history of self-harming behaviour. Mrs X says the Council has known about Miss Z’s mental health issues since at least 2016.
  2. Mrs X says Miss Z does not usually open letters. For this reason, Mrs X handles correspondence about Miss Z’s tenancy, Council Tax and social security benefits.
  3. There is a case note in the Council’s Housing Benefit records from January 2013. The officer said it was clear from speaking to Miss Z that she suffers from depression and other mental health issues. She noted Mrs X’s new address and that Miss Z was happy for the Council to keep Mrs X “in the loop”.
  4. It seems this information about Miss Z’s mental health issues was kept in the Housing Benefit records and not shared at the time with other relevant Council services, such as the Council Tax team.
  5. There is a brief note in the Council Tax records from 3 June 2016. It says Mrs X mentioned having power of attorney (PoA) to manage Miss Z’s affairs. The officer asked Mrs X to provide a copy of the PoA. The Council says she has not provided this evidence.
  6. Mrs X says Miss Z authorised the Council in 2016 to send all correspondence about her Housing Benefit claim and Council Tax account to her grandmother, Mrs X. Mrs X says these arrangements worked well until 2018.
  7. The Council sent me relevant records from Miss Z’s Council Tax and Housing Benefit files. On 3 June 2016 Miss Z wrote and signed the following statement:

I request that my grandmother, Mrs [X], be given permission to handle all aspects of my claim for Housing Benefit and Council Tax”.

  1. In response to my enquiries the Council said it had treated this as an authority for officers to speak to Mrs X when she called to make enquiries about her granddaughter’s Council Tax account and benefit claims. It did not set up a forwarding address then and it continued to send Council Tax correspondence to Miss Z’s address.
  2. The Council says the annual Council Tax bill and reminder notices were sent to Miss Z’s address between March and July 2017. It says neither Mrs X nor Miss Z queried why this correspondence was not sent to Mrs X instead.
  3. Mrs X told me Miss Z paid the Council Tax in monthly instalments by direct debit. Following a mental health crisis in December 2017, she overspent and there were insufficient funds in her bank account to pay the direct debit. The Council Tax account then went into arrears. Mrs X did not know about this at the time.
  4. The Council’s records show it sent Miss Z an annual Council Tax bill on 12 March 2018. When she did not pay the first instalment by the due date, it sent her a reminder notice on 26 April. As the amount due was not paid, it issued a summons on 22 May and then obtained a Liability Order from the Magistrates Court. It then passed the account to a firm of civil enforcement agents to recover the debt.
  5. The civil enforcement agents wrote to Miss Z on 26 June 2018 and again on 9 July 2018. Miss Z did not reply to these letters or tell Mrs X about them. On 15 July the civil enforcement agents sent a text message to Miss Z.
  6. On 18 July a civil enforcement agent visited Miss Z at her home early in the morning to try to collect the debt. Miss Z agreed to let the agent in. She then called Mrs X who spoke to the agent. Mrs X says Miss Z also asked a neighbour to come in to support her.
  7. Mrs X says she told the agent during the telephone conversation about Miss Z’s mental health issues. She asked him not to remove any of her goods. She says the agent would not listen. Mrs X felt she had to make a card payment there and then to stop the agent removing Miss Z’s belongings.
  8. Mrs X says the agent’s visit had a very detrimental impact on Miss Z. Mrs X had been supporting Miss X to build up her confidence and independence and go out in the community. Following the agent’s visit, she says Miss Z regressed and refused to leave the house or get out of bed. The incidents of self-harming behaviour also increased.
  9. On 25 July Miss Z and Mrs X made a joint complaint to the Council about the enforcement agent’s visit. An officer in the Council Tax service spoke to Mrs X. Mrs X said when Miss Z authorised officers to speak to Mrs X about her Council Tax account in June 2016 she believed this also authorised them to send correspondence to Mrs X. In her notes, the officer said if the Council had requested evidence to confirm Miss Z’s mental health issues in 2016, and added Mrs X’s address as a forwarding address then, the enforcement agent would not have visited her in July 2018. For that reason, she decided to refund the £47 Court costs and the £310 fees charged by the enforcement agents. She referred to the reimbursement of the enforcement agent’s fees as compensation.
  10. After Mrs X took in a bank statement to prove she had made the payment to the enforcement agents, the Council made the refund in August 2018. A form was also sent to set up a new direct debit arrangement for future payments of Council Tax.
  11. Mrs X pursued the complaint further. On 18 August a manager in the Customer Services team spoke to Mrs X and then sent a letter of apology to Miss Z via Mrs X. In the letter, he apologised that the records were not accurately updated in 2016. He said this had resulted in correspondence being sent directly to Miss Z instead of to her care of her grandmother. The Council also sent Mrs X a form to complete and return if Miss Z wished to apply for a Council Tax exemption on the grounds of a severe mental impairment.
  12. I have seen screenshots of Miss Z’s Council Tax account. There is now a prominent marker to alert staff to the fact that she is vulnerable. There is also a note to instruct staff to send future bills and correspondence to Miss X care of Mrs X’s address. A separate note reminds staff to use large print when sending correspondence to Mrs X.
  13. Following the complaint, a new direct debit was set up from Miss Z’s bank account to pay Council Tax instalments.
  14. Mrs X told us she wants the Council to provide the following additional remedy:
    • give her a meaningful apology which shows some understanding of the impact these events had on her as Miss Z’s representative. She is partially sighted and cares for her husband who is terminally ill. She says it was inconvenient and time-consuming to visit the Council’s office to take in evidence of the payment to the enforcement agents and to pursue a complaint;
    • make a payment to Ms Z to recognise the distress caused by the civil enforcement agent’s visit;
    • explain what practical steps it has taken to stop this happening again; and
    • ensure that any correspondence it sends to her in future is in large print.

Analysis

  1. Miss Z signed a statement on 3 June 2016 giving permission for Mrs X to deal with all aspects of her claim for Housing Benefit and Council Tax.
  2. In response to my enquiries, the Council said it interpreted this as authority for officers to speak to Mrs X if she contacted them with enquiries about Miss Z’s Housing Benefit claim or Council Tax account.
  3. However, the statement plainly says Miss Z wanted Mrs X to deal with “all aspects”. A common sense interpretation is that this extended to dealing with any correspondence about the Housing Benefit claim and Council Tax account. If officers were in any doubt about Miss Z’s wishes, they could have clarified this with Miss Z while she was in the office writing the statement.
  4. The two officers who investigated Mrs X’s complaint in July and August 2018 both agreed the Council had been at fault. The officer who carried out the initial investigation refunded the Court costs and reimbursed the enforcement agent’s fees. She took this action because she decided the account would not have escalated to the enforcement stage if the records had been accurately updated in 2016 and correspondence had been sent to Mrs X instead. At the second stage, the investigating officer apologised to Miss Z for the failure to update the records accurately in 2016. The Council would have had no reason to apologise to Miss Z and refund the costs and fees unless it accepted it was at fault. It cannot now backtrack and argue there was no fault.
  5. The Council took some remedial action before the complaint was made to us. It apologised to Miss Z and reimbursed Mrs X. It put a flag on the Council Tax account to note Miss Z’s vulnerability and to ensure correspondence is sent to Mrs X in future. I am satisfied it has taken practical steps to ensure this does not happen again.
  6. Mrs X feels the Council should go further and provide an additional remedy. She was put to some inconvenience and time and trouble in pursuing the complaint. She had to provide evidence of her payment to the enforcement agent to get a refund. She does not want or expect the Council to give her a financial remedy. But she has asked for a written apology to recognise the impact these events had on her, as well as Miss Z, and I consider this is appropriate.
  7. I consider a modest payment for Miss Z to recognise the distress caused by the enforcement agent’s visit in July 2018 is justified. Miss Z did owe Council Tax after the direct debit payments stopped. But if the Council had sent correspondence to Mrs X instead of Miss Z, it seems probable that Mrs X would have cleared the debt promptly and the enforcement agent would not have needed to visit Miss Z. After all, Mrs X was willing to pay the debt on the day the agent visited Miss Z to stop matters going any further.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council will:
    • send a letter of apology to Mrs X which acknowledges the inconvenience and time and trouble to which she was put because of its fault. The letter should be in large print;
    • pay Miss Z £250 for the distress caused by the enforcement agent’s visit.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed the investigation and found Mrs X and Miss Z suffered injustice due to fault by the Council. The Council accepted my findings and agreed to provide a suitable remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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