The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained about the time taken by the Council to recover a very old council tax debt. We cannot find fault with the Council’s actions.
- Mr B complains that the Royal Borough of Greenwich (the Council) is taking unreasonable action in seeking to recover a debt from 2005. It is causing him, and his family significant stress and he does not have the evidence to dispute the Council’s view.
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 have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Mr B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
Recovery of old debts
- Once a council has obtained a liability order from the magistrates court for a council tax debt, the statute of limitations does not apply. This means that a council can recover council tax debts older than six years.
- If a council has not taken action for some time it should at the very least warn the debtor before it takes further recovery action and in some cases the length of time taken to recover the debt may be unreasonable if it hampers a person’s ability to provide evidence to dispute the debt.
- Mr B got into arrears with his council tax in 2005. In July 2005 the Council obtained a liability order. At this point Mr B contacted the Council to make a payment arrangement. He did not keep to the arrangement and the Council tried to recover the money from his earnings in October 2005. But Mr B had changed jobs.
- In January 2006, Mr B informed the Council of his new employer, but he agreed to clear the balance to avoid an attachment of earnings.
- In March 2006, the debt remained outstanding and the Council passed it to a bailiff for collection. In May 2006, Mr B agreed a new arrangement.
- In April 2007, the debt still outstanding. The Council identified a possible new employer but was unable to confirm this. In May 2007, the Council contacted Mr B’s wife, Mrs B who agreed to pay. She said she would speak to Mr B to agree an arrangement and provide his new employer details.
- Mr B then rang to say that he left the property in March 2006. The Council created a new account created in name of Mrs B only from 31 March 2006.
- Mr B made a payment in March 2009.
- In March 2010, the Council unsuccessfully tried another attachment of earnings.
- In January 2011 the Council sent the account sent to the bailiffs and was aware that Mr B was back at the family address.
- In 2016, the Council set up a new team to target old arrears. In July 2019 it sent a bill to Mr and Mrs B at the property address. In August 2019 it sent a fourteen-day letter warning of further action. In September 2019 it sent the case to an Enforcement Agent. Mr B then complained to us and his MP saying he had paid the debt off at the time.
- The Enforcement Agent continued action in January 2020 to recover the debt. In February 2020 Mr B agreed to pay the debt in two instalments. He paid the first one on 6 February 2020.
- The Council has provided evidence of how and when the debt arose. Mr B said he was going to pay the debt in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2009 he made a payment. At no time did he challenge that he owed the debt and was aware of its existence.
- The Council took a further ten years to recover the debt. In some cases, we might consider this was too long. However, Mr B has never disputed that he owed the debt and has made payments towards it. The Council has full records of the payments and contact made and gave Mr B several months warning before it referred the case to the Enforcement Agents.
- I cannot find fault in its actions.
- I have completed my investigation into this complaint as I am unable to find fault causing injustice in the actions of the Council towards Mr B.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman