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Brighton & Hove City Council (19 018 372)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 25 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint about council tax arrears because there is insufficient evidence of fault by the Council. In addition, the complainant can contact the Information Commissioner.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to as Ms X, complains about the way the Council handled her council tax account. In particular she disputes the bailiff fees and says the Council breached the GDPR regulations.

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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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start an investigation if we believe it is unlikely we would find fault. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
  2. We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
  3. The Information Commissioner considers complaints about the GDPR.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I read the complaint and the Council’s responses. I looked at screenshots which show when Ms X reported that she had moved. I invited Ms X to comment on a draft of this decision.

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What I found

Council tax

  1. The regulations say councils should send documents to the last known address.
  2. The regulations also say that if someone does not pay their council tax the Council can issue a court summons and ask the court for a liability order. When the court issues a liability order, councils can ask bailiffs to collect the debt. Bailiffs charge fees.

What happened

  1. Ms X was living in flat 1. In 2017 she moved to flat 2. The Council says Ms X did not report she had moved to flat 2 until September 2019. Flats 1 and 2 were in the same block.
  2. The Council says Ms X owed council tax for flat 1 after she moved. It sent letters to flat 1 about the arrears. Ms X did not pay so the Council got a liability order and instructed bailiffs. Ms X was unaware of the debt until September 2019 when, by chance, she found a letter addressed to her, in a communal area, and sent to flat 1. Ms X contacted the Council, reported that she had moved to flat 2, and explained she thought she had paid all the council tax for flat 1. Ms X found out she owed £550 which included charges of £435.
  3. Ms X paid the £550 and complained. She complained that the Council did not try to contact her by phone or email, that the charges were excessive, that the Council may not have sent letters to flat 1 and that the Council had breached the GDPR by giving her details to the bailiffs.
  4. In response the Council explained it had sent all the documents it was required to send to the last known address. It said it was the tax payer’s responsibility to pay their council tax and the Council did not have resources to chase people by email or phone. It explained it had no record that she had moved and it provided a breakdown of the £550. It declined to give a refund.

Assessment

  1. Ms X has made many complaints about the way the Council handled her account but I will not start an investigation because there is insufficient evidence of fault by the Council. The key point is that there is no evidence that Ms X reported that she had moved from flat 1 to flat 2. If she had done this then she would have received the reminder about the arrears and could have paid before the costs escalated. I have checked the system and there is nothing to suggest she reported the move until 2019 by which time bailiffs were involved.
  2. The Council is required to send letters to the last known address and it is not required to individually chase people by other means. Council tax collection is largely an automated process and the Council has explained that, given the large number of council tax payers, it does not have resources to contact people over and above the statutory notices it is required to send. I appreciate Ms X has had to pay fees but these correctly reflect what happens when arrears are passed to bailiffs. In addition, while Ms X has questioned whether the Council was using the correct address, the fact she found a letter from the bailiffs, addressed to flat 1, indicates the Council correctly sent the letters.
  3. Ms X says the Council breached the GDPR by sending her details to the bailiffs. I will not investigate this part of the complaint because Ms X can complain to the Information Commissioner (ICO). It is reasonable to expect Ms X to contact the ICO because that is the appropriate body to consider concerns about the GDPR.

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Final decision

  1. I will not start an investigation because there is insufficient evidence of fault by the Council and because Ms X can contact the Information Commissioner.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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