The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council failed to tell Ms X about the Valuation Tribunal when she disputed liability for council tax. Instead it took unnecessary and distressing enforcement action against her for two years. The Council wrongly told the Social Services Department of the council Ms X had moved to that it was investigating her for council tax fraud. This caused further distress. To put this right the Council will apologise to Ms X and pay her a financial remedy for the distress, time and trouble it caused. The Council should also tell the Ombudsman how it will ensure it properly handles council tax liability disputes in future.
- Ms X complains the Council:
- Delayed in telling her about her right to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal when she disputed liability for council tax. Instead it involved enforcement agents adding extra costs. It also meant she had over two years of visits and threatening letters and texts from the agents before the Tribunal found she was not liable.
- Sent two people to her home who forced their way in, refused to say why they were there or provide ID and “ransacked” her bedroom. She says this caused enormous distress to her and her vulnerable young son.
- Wrongly investigated her for fraud when she changed her name. She says the Council did not tell her about the investigation.
- Gave false information to another council leading to it investigating if she posed a risk to her son.
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
- I considered the complaint made by Ms X and discussed it with her. I asked the Council for information and considered what it sent.
- I wrote to Ms X and the Council with a draft decision of my decision and gave them an opportunity to comment.
What I found
- If a council makes a resident responsible for council tax but the resident disagrees, the resident can tell the council why it is wrong. If the council does not agree, it must give written reasons. The resident can then appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
- A single adult living in a property gets a single person discount of 25% of the council tax.
- Croydon Council has its own Enforcement Agent Service it uses to collect debts when it has obtained a liability order.
- Ms X and her son lived at a private rented property in Croydon. As Ms X was the only adult resident, she got the 25% single person discount on her council tax. On 15 February 2016 Ms X moved. She says the house needed repairs and the landlady wanted her to leave so she could do the repairs. She says they agreed Ms X would move out in February and the landlady returned her deposit.
- Ms X told the Council and gave it her new address. The Council sent Ms X a new bill saying she was not liable for council tax from 15 February and she had paid in full.
- Ms X is the complainant’s married name, she was previously known as Ms Y. Her tenancy was in the name of Ms X but her bank account still said Ms Y.
- In March 2016 the Council changed the name on its council tax account from Ms X to Ms Y.
- In April the Council sent a bill to Ms X holding her liable for Council tax until 18 April 2016. On 13 May 2016 Ms X provided evidence to support her view she was not liable after 15 February. In June the Council sent a summons to Ms X for non-payment of council tax. Ms X contacted it again. On 17 June the Council told Ms X it had sent the summons in error; it had removed the summons and closed Ms X’s council tax account from 18 February.
- On 4 August 2016 the Council sent another bill to Ms X making her liable up to 18 April. It addressed this to Ms Y. It sent a reminder on 5 September. On 12 September Ms X asked the Council for advice and sent it a reminder on 20 September. I have seen no evidence the Council responded.
- On 22 September the Council summonsed Ms X for 18 October 2016. It sent the case to its Enforcement Agents the same day.
- Ms X went to the hearing on 18 October and gave documents to the Council’s representative. The Council wrote to Ms X later that day and said: “The landlord contacted us and advised that according to the tenancy agreement you were liable up to the 18 April 2016 and that there was no agreement that released you early, in view of this your account was reopened.”
- On 2 November 2016 Ms X wrote again saying she was not liable and giving her reasons and evidence.
- The Council’s Enforcement Agents then contacted Ms X. On 15 November 2016 Ms X wrote to the Agents saying she was not liable and asking what legislation made her liable. She sent a chaser email on 18 November. The Agents then responded: “Unfortunately you are not the named person for the debt we are collecting on behalf of Croydon Council and therefore I am unable to discuss this account with you due to data protection”.
- On 15 December 2016 the Council replied to Ms X. It said:
“Summons costs of £110.00 were incurred and further court costs of £15.00 were incurred when a liability order was granted at Croydon Magistrates Court on 18 October 2016 increasing your outstanding balance to £276.14.”
“As payment of £276.14 wasn’t received according to the liability order, the balance was correctly passed to the council’s enforcement agents for collection on 22 September 2016 incurring additional enforcement fees and charges.”
“Please be advised that any further dispute about the end date of your council tax liability resulting from information provided by your landlord must be addressed directly with your landlord because the council cannot become involved in private disputes.”
“You must now contact the council’s enforcement agents directly to arrange repayment of your outstanding balance and any enforcement fees and charges incurred.”
- The Council accepts this advice was wrong.
- On 19 December 2016 Ms X made another appeal to the Council saying why she was not liable and asking the Council to stop its Enforcement Agents contacting her. In this letter Ms X referred to Ms Y. She did not say Ms Y was her former name. She said Ms Y paid the council tax as “part of our private arrangements”.
- The Council now suspected Ms X and Ms Y were two different people who lived in the house and Ms X was not entitled to the single person discount.
- Ms X sent a reminder to the Council for a reply on 13 February 2017.
- The Council replied on 15 April 2017. It wanted proof she was the tenant and not Ms Y so it could change the name on the council tax account. It also said:
“Council tax records show that the council tax liability for (Ms Y) was with effect from 28 March 2015 until 18 April 2016, this is the date that the landlord of the property has advised that the keys were returned. If this is incorrect you would need to discuss your tenancy end date with your landlord as under the hierarchy of council tax liability until the keys are returned the tenant is liable to be charged council tax as you still had access to the property.”
- In November 2017 Ms X complained to her MP.
- In December 2017 the Council sent Ms X’s account to external Enforcement Agents. These Agents sent Ms X a letter and visited her home adding £310 to Ms X’s debt.
- In January 2018 the Council responded to Ms X and her MP. It now asked for information about Ms Y including where she lived and why she agreed to pay the council tax. It also asked for proof that Ms X’s landlady agreed to Ms X ending her tenancy early.
- The Enforcement Agents sent texts to Ms X saying it had booked a van to remove her goods and she needed to go home now. Ms X telephone the Agents but they refused to talk to her as she was not the named debtor. Ms X continued to receive threatening texts from the Agents.
- Ms X made further complaints in February and March 2018. On 27 March 2018 the Council replied it could not deal with her complaint until she provided the information it asked for about Ms Y.
- In April 2018 Ms X again asked the Council to deal with her complaint. On 20 April Ms X complained to a councillor. She said all the evidence showed her landlord was liable for the council tax. She said the Council had now brought up an unrelated issue, whether Ms Y lived with her. She said Ms Y was her maiden name. She said if the Council suspected someone else lived with her, this was a separate issue from whether she was liable for council tax. The Council then agreed to reply to her complaint. It put enforcement action on hold while it investigated.
- On 14 May 2018 Ms X says two men forced their way into her home at 7 a.m. saying they had a warrant for a previous tenant. She says they refused to show her any ID or the warrant. She says they went through her belongings looking for proof of her identity. Ms X says the visit terrified her and her son. She believes the Council sent the men to check if Ms Y was her other name.
- The Council replied to Ms X’s complaint on 15 May 2018. It agreed she was the tenant. It said she was liable for council tax until 18 April 2016 as this was when the tenancy ended. It said her account was with Enforcement Agents and she now owed £586.14 and she should talk to the Agents about a repayment plan.
- On 16 May Ms X made a new complaint about the visit on 14 May. The Council responded the same day to say it was not the Enforcement Agents as the Council had put enforcement on hold. I have checked the Agents records and there is no record of a visit to Ms X that day. The Council’s Anti-Fraud Team say the case was not referred to them and they have not visited Ms X.
- In May 2018 Ms X moved away from Croydon. Ms X’s son has a care plan, so his case transferred to the new council. In doing so Ms X’s son’s Croydon Social Worker told the new council Croydon was investigating Ms X for council tax fraud.
- Ms X complained to the Ombudsman and we asked the Council to consider the complaint first. We also asked the Council to tell Ms X about her right to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. The Council accept it was in error not to tell Ms X this sooner.
- In July 2018 the Council wrote to Ms X and said she was liable for council tax until 18 April 2016. It told Ms X about her right to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
- Ms X appealed to the Tribunal on 24 July and it listed a hearing for 8 October. The Council asked the Tribunal to re-list the hearing for a later date.
- On 29 October the Council sent Ms X a new bill up to 18 April 2016 but with a higher amount due. On 2 November the Council wrote to Ms X to say it now accepted Ms Y was not a different person but Ms X’s maiden name. However, it said she was not entitled to the single person discount from 18 February to 18 April 2016 as she did not live at the property. Therefore, the amount she owed had increased.
- Ms X made a complaint about the transfer of her son’s case between councils. She said Croydon had made false allegations to justify the actions of a school and make her look a bad parent. She said the new council had accepted Croydon’s views without question. Ms X has made separate complaints about her concerns and they are not part of this investigation. However, from the paperwork she received Ms X discovered the Croydon social worker had told the new social worker about a council tax fraud investigation. Ms X complained about this.
- On 14 November 2018 the Council responded. It said the social worker had told the new council about a potential fraud investigation, but the Council had not investigated Ms X for fraud. In January 2019 the Council gave Ms X a fuller response. It said Ms X’s email of December 2016 led it to believe Ms X and Ms Y were different people. Revenues asked Social Services to clarify the names Ms X uses. Social Services misunderstood and thought it was a fraud investigation. It apologised and said it had now told the new council it had never investigated Ms X for fraud.
- In December 2018 the Valuation Tribunal heard the case. On 2 January 2019 the Tribunal gave its decision; Ms X was not liable for council tax from 19 February to 18 April 2016.
The delay in referring Ms X to the Valuation Tribunal
- The Council accepts it was wrong to tell Ms X she must resolve liability for council tax with her landlord. The Council decides who is liable. If someone disputes liability, the Council should tell them to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. Ms X consistently disputed liability. The Council did not tell Ms X about the Valuation Tribunal until July 2018. This is fault. The Tribunal found for Ms X. Because the Council delayed in telling Ms X about the Tribunal, it wrongly obtained a liability order and then referred the account to two different enforcement agents. This added costs, which the Council has now removed. This has not remedied the injustice. Ms X had the stress of dealing with this and substantial unnecessary time and trouble in trying to get the Council to put it right. She also endured constant threats from the agents.
- The Council told Ms X she had to deal with the agents, but as it had changed the name on her account neither agent would speak to her.
- The Council often delayed in replying to Ms X. It wrongly refused to deal with complaint about liability until a councillor complained on her behalf.
The visit by people looking for information
- I appreciate how frightened Ms X was when two men came to her house and searched it. However, I have found no evidence the Council or its enforcement agents were responsible.
The fraud investigation
- The email Ms X sent the Council on 19 December 2016 reads as if Ms X and Ms Y are two different people. I do not find the Council at fault for investigating this as it needed to establish if she was entitled to the single person discount. I have seen no evidence the Council referred this to its Anti-Fraud Team for a fraud investigation.
The information given to another council
- The Council’s Social Services department wrongly told another council it was investigating Ms X for council tax fraud. This caused Ms X distress. I do not consider the wrong information caused the other council to investigate if Ms X posed a risk to her son. The other council acted on a much broader range of information. Ms X says this information was also wrong and has made a separate complaint about this.
- We publish guidance on remedies. Where action by enforcement agents occurred because of fault by a council, we anticipate the council should provide a distinct remedy for the distress this caused. We usually recommend a “modest” amount of between £100 and £300. We recommend more if the distress is greater, an example is when the action continued for more than a few weeks. In this case Ms X had enforcement agent action against her for two years. She received letters and visits and numerous threats by text. I consider the distress caused is above our usual range and should be double the top of that range.
- As well as enforcement action the Council caused Ms X other distress. It treated her significantly unfairly and showed a disregard for proper procedures. It did not tell her about the Valuation Tribunal; it gave wrong information to her and about her. It caused her undue significant stress, inconvenience and frustration. We often recommend a moderate sum of between £100 and £300 for distress. I consider the distress caused to Ms X is at the top of this scale.
- The Council also caused Ms X unnecessary time and trouble, at times it did not respond to her and she had to involve a councillor before it would respond to her complaint. We usually recommend a payment between £100 and £300 for time and trouble. I consider the unnecessary time and trouble the Council caused Ms X is in the middle of this range.
- To put matters right for Ms X the Council has agreed that within a month of my final decision it will:
- apologise to Ms X; and
- pay her £1,050 for the unnecessary distress, time and trouble it caused her.
- To put matters right for other people, within one month of my final decision the Council will tell the Ombudsman what action it will take to ensure Revenues officers recognise an appeal about council tax liability. It should also tell the Ombudsman how in future it will tell those who dispute liability about the Valuation Tribunal.
- The Council is at fault and had caused injustice. It has agreed to provide a remedy for this. I have completed my investigation and closed the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman