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Isle of Wight Council (19 019 489)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 09 Dec 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council wrongly took enforcement action against him for unpaid council tax. He also complains the Council wrongly sent enforcement correspondence to his old address. Mr X says he had to pay unnecessary costs and spent time and trouble dealing with the Council’s enforcement action. We find no fault in the Council’s actions regarding this matter.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council wrongly took enforcement action against him for unpaid council tax. Mr X changed address in 2019. He says the Council told him arrears from the council tax account at his previous address could be transferred to the account at his new address. Mr X complains the Council later told him this was not possible and took enforcement action against him for the unpaid arrears.
  2. Mr X also complains the Council wrongly sent enforcement correspondence to his old address. He says he had to pay unnecessary costs as a result, and spent time and trouble having to deal with the Council’s enforcement action.
  3. Mr X also complains the Council did not respond to a subject access request.

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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 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. 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 read Mr X’s complaint and considered the information he provided.
  2. I have made enquiries to the Council and considered the information it provided.
  3. Mr X and the Council have had the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I have considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Council tax

  1. The Local Government Finance Act 1992 gives local authorities the power to levy and collect a dwelling tax. This is known as council tax.
  2. The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 cover both the way councils collect payments of council tax and the way councils can recover council tax debt.
  3. To use the various powers available to it to recover unpaid council tax, a council must apply to the Magistrates Court for a liability order against those it believes are liable. Before a council can pursue someone for council tax, it must send a demand. It must also issue at least one reminder notice before issuing a summons for a liability order in the magistrates’ court. Once a council has obtained a liability order it can take recovery action.
  4. A liability order gives a council legal powers to take enforcement action to collect the money owed. The Council can decide which recovery method it wishes to use but it can only use one method for one liability order at one time.
  5. The law says that councils can serve a document about billing or enforcement of council tax by delivering it in person, leaving it at the person’s proper address, or sending it by post to their proper address. Proper address is taken to be the last known address. There is no need to use registered or recorded post. Unless the contrary is proved, a document is deemed to have been served by post when it would be delivered in the ordinary course of post. (Local Government Act 1972 (Section 233); Regulation 35(2) of The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992; The Interpretation Act 1978 (Section 7))

What happened

  1. Mr X was liable for council tax at his address, Property A. In August 2018, he told the Council he planned to leave Property A in September.
  2. In December 2018, the Council visited Property A. It found the sale of Property A had not gone ahead and Mr X was still living at the address. Mr X told the Council he planned to leave Property A in January 2019.
  3. In February 2019, Mr X moved to a new address, Property B, and set up a postal redirection service for three months.
  4. At about the same time, the new owner of Property A told the Council they had bought the property. The Council closed the council tax account for Mr X at Property A and sent him a closing council tax bill on 25 February 2019.
  5. On 13 March 2019, Mr X called the Council about the bill. The Council asked Mr X for his new address to update its records. Mr X said he was not able to give his address at that time because he was going out. He said he was in the process of completing some forms to tell the Council his new address and that he would pay his account in full on 25 March 2019.
  6. On 31 March 2019, Mr X sent an email to the Council. He said he had paid most of the council tax bill for Property A, but not an amount which had been brought forward from a previous year. Mr X said he could not understand why this balance had been brought forward and asked the Council to explain what this amount related to.
  7. Mr X completed a change of circumstances form and gave his new address as Property B. He did not provide his previous address on the form. The Council received the form on 1 April 2019 and sent Mr X a bill for council tax at Property B on 25 April 2019.
  8. The Council sent an email to Mr X on 2 May 2019 about the closing bill for Property A. It said the amount brought forward from a previous year related to a rejected payment in 2017.
  9. On 20 May 2019, the Council sent Mr X a reminder for the unpaid amount of council tax at Property A. On 10 June 2019, it sent Mr X a summons for the unpaid amount.
  10. On 15 July 2019, the Council obtained a liability order for the unpaid council tax and on 12 August 2019, it issued a notice of enforcement to Mr X.
  11. Mr X received the enforcement notice and called the Council on 19 August 2019. The Council said it would not stop enforcement action because Mr X had not provided his new address. Mr X said the Council had previously told him the amount brought forward from 2017 would be transferred to the council tax account at his new address.
  12. On 20 August 2019, Mr X paid the council tax amount brought froward from 2017 relating to Property A. He did not pay the additional charges caused by the enforcement action.

Mr X’s complaint

  1. Mr X complained to the Council on 20 August 2019. He said he had received the bill dated 25 February 2019 and paid the council tax balance, minus the amount brought forward from a previous year. He said he had not paid this at the time because he did not know what it referred to.
  2. Mr X said the Council told him in a telephone call on 25 March 2019 that the brought forward amount was from 2017. Mr X said he was unable to provide his new address during this call because he had to leave to attend to an urgent matter.
  3. Mr X said he called the Council again on 29 March 2019 and provided his new address. He said the Council told him it had no record of his telephone call on 25 March 2019. He said the Council told him it would transfer the outstanding amount from 2017 to his new council tax account at Property B.
  4. Mr X said he thought the matter was resolved until he received the enforcement notice. He said this had been sent to his old address at Property A, but had been forwarded to him at Property B. Mr X said he would pay the balance of the missed payment, but not the additional costs incurred by the enforcement action.
  5. The Council replied on 12 September 2019. The Council’s email failed to send however, so it resent its response on 30 October 2019. The Council said Mr X had not provided his forwarding address when he left Property A. It said that although he had paid some of the closing bill, the amount brought forward from a previous year remained outstanding. The Council said it was not possible to transfer the balance from one council tax account to another.
  6. The Council said it explained to Mr X about the brought forward amount in its email of 2 May 2019. It said no further payment was received, so it issued a reminder, followed by a summons. The Council said it would not cancel the enforcement action taken.
  7. Mr X replied to the Council on 31 October 2019. He said he gave his new address during a telephone call on 29 March 2019 but the Council had not updated its records. He maintained the Council told him it would transfer the outstanding balance to his current council tax account. Mr X also said he did not receive the council tax enforcement letters because they had been incorrectly sent to his previous address.
  8. The Council replied on 14 November 2019. It said it had no record of the telephone calls Mr X said he made on 25 March or 29 March 2019. It confirmed it could not transfer the balance of one council tax account to another and said it considered the recovery action taken was correct.
  9. Mr X remained unhappy with the Council’s response and brought his complaint to the Ombudsman.

Was there fault by the Council?

  1. The Council sent Mr X an email on 2 May 2019 which said the amount brought forward from 2017 related to a rejected payment. The Council says it included this amount on the council tax bill sent to Mr X. It said this formed part of the 2018/2019 council tax instalments and was why it did not send Mr X a reminder notice at the time.
  2. I consider the Council therefore explained to Mr X why it included this amount on his council tax bill. It also explained this amount was payable.
  3. The Council cannot provide copies of the council tax bills, reminders or summons. Although this means I cannot confirm to which address this correspondence was sent, the Council has not disputed the correspondence was sent to Mr X’s previous address at Property A.
  4. The Council says it could not link Mr X at both properties because he did not provide his previous address on the change of circumstances form. It says to make this link would require it to assume Mr X at Property A was the same person as Mr X at Property B. It says it could not do this for data protection reasons. I consider this to be a reasonable explanation and explains why the change of circumstances form asks for current and previous addresses.
  5. As stated at paragraph 12, for the Council’s documents to be effective, they must be served on a person. Summonses are served under the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992. All other documents are served under the Local Government Act 1972 (Section 233). Both say the document may be served on a person by delivering it to them (in person), leaving it at their proper address or sending it by post to their proper address. Proper address is taken to be the last known address.
  6. The Council made enquiries and says it visited Property A and Property B to find out who was liable for council tax at these addresses. I acknowledge the Council’s explanation it could not make assumptions about the identity of the occupiers. I therefore consider the Council sent the council tax documents relating to Property A, to Mr X at the last known address for him. This explains why the documents were sent to Property A. As a result, I consider the Council’s documents were correctly served.
  7. I acknowledge Mr X says he called the Council on 29 March 2019 and gave his new address at that time. However, there is no evidence of this call to support Mr X’s explanation.
  8. Therefore, based on the evidence I have seen, and the explanations provided, I find no fault by the Council in sending its correspondence to Property A.
  9. I acknowledge Mr X says he did not receive any correspondence from the Council after he moved out of Property A, except for the enforcement notice. But because the Council’s documents were posted to the last known address, I cannot hold the Council responsible for Mr X not receiving them. It is noted however, that the evidence shows Mr X received the closing bill for Property A, and that this was issued during the period of the postal redirect.
  10. Turning to the remaining part of Mr X’s complaint, I must consider whether there is fault by the Council in taking enforcement action. The Council sent a council tax bill to Mr X. It also explained how the bill had been calculated, and that payment was required. The Council sent a reminder for the unpaid balance, and a court summons when the amount remained unpaid. I therefore consider there is no fault in the Council taking enforcement action.

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Final decision

  1. I have found no fault by the Council and have concluded my investigation on this basis.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Mr X made a subject access request to the Council to ask for the records of his telephone calls to it. He says the Council has not responded to this request and has not provided the records.
  2. As stated at paragraph five, we normally expect someone to refer a complaint about data protection to the ICO. The ICO is the UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights. It deals with complaints about public authorities’ failures to comply with data protection legislation. This includes complaints about failing to respond to subject access requests.
  3. I consider the ICO to be in a better position than us to consider this aspect of Mr X’s complaint. It can decide if the Council has failed to disclose information it holds about Mr X. The ICO has wider powers than us to act if it finds the Council has failed in its duties as a data controller. Mr X should therefore complain to the ICO about this part of his complaint as it is the appropriate body to deal with these concerns.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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