The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council failed to clearly explain what council tax he owed and sent confusing bills and a summons without a reminder. The Council was at fault for sending Mr X three different bills on one day. It has already apologised for this. The Council has clearly explained to Mr X how it calculated the council tax he owed and has withdrawn the summons. This was an appropriate remedy for any injustice caused to Mr X.
- Mr X complained the Council failed to clearly explain what council tax he owed from 2019/20. It sent confusing bills and a summons without a reminder causing him frustration and distress.
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 information supplied by Mr X and spoke to him on the telephone. I considered the Council’s response to my enquiries.
- I gave Mr X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I considered any comments I received in reaching a final decision.
What I found
- The main legislation concerned with the collection and recovery of council tax is the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 (as amended). Council tax is payable by monthly instalments, usually ten payments from April to January.
- By agreement a council may make a special payment arrangement with a tax payer outside the normal instalment scheme. The Council has discretion to decide what sort of arrangement it will accept. Usually councils look to have the debt cleared by the end of the financial year and where the debt is for a previous year, it will also want to see payment for the current year maintained.
- Where payments are made which are different from the instalment schedule set out on the bill, council systems will often automatically credit the payments to any arrears on the account on the basis of the oldest debt first.
- If a council tax payer fails to pay an instalment, the Council will issue a reminder. If they do not pay within seven days the Council can issue a summons and apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a liability order. The Magistrates’ Court must grant an order if it believes that a sum is owed and has not been paid.
- The Regulations only require a council to issue two reminders for each account in any given council tax year. If a third payment is not made by the due date, the Council is entitled to send a final demand for the entire outstanding council tax for that year, removing the right to pay by instalments.
- In March 2019 the Council issued Mr X with a bill for his 2019/20 council tax. In August 2019 the Council sent Mr X a reminder for an unpaid instalment which was due at the start of that month. The Council then transferred a payment allocated to 2018/19 to the 2019/20 council tax. In September 2019 the Council issued Mr X with a final notice for the council tax due to 2019/20. Mr X emailed that he could not afford this and in October 2019 the Council sent Mr X a special arrangement to pay the remaining balance owed for 2018/19 and 2019/20.
- In May 2020 the Council sent Mr X three council tax bills for the 2020/21 council tax year. Each showed he owed different amounts. Mr X emailed the Council to query this. The Council responded the next day and advised Mr X to ignore the two bills with the earliest dates. It explained these were issued due to benefit adjustments and the bill with the latest date was the current bill to pay which superseded the previous bills.
- Mr X remained concerned as he did not think his benefits had changed significantly and asked the Council to look at it again.
- The Council emailed Mr X and set out how it calculated the three bills. The first bill included an award of council tax support. The second bill arose due to information the Council received from the Department for Work and Pensions which affected Mr X’s council tax support. The third bill arose when the Department for Work and Pensions notified the Council of a change in Mr X’s tax credits. The third bill set out Mr X needed to make one payment of £46.02 then eight further instalments of £48 a month.
- In July 2020 the Council sent Mr X a reminder for £94.02 (the first two instalments). Mr X emailed the Council as he had paid these instalments. The Council telephoned Mr X. It explained that as Mr X had not paid the exact amounts of the instalments the system had allocated the payments to the debt he still owed for his 2019/20 council tax. The Council transferred these payments to the 2020/21 council tax year and recalculated the arrangement. The Council also explained there had been further changes in Mr X’s council tax support which meant he would receive a new bill with increased instalment amounts. The system notes also record the Council set up a special arrangement for Mr X to pay the 2019/20 council tax at £50.33 for a month and two further payments of £51. It is not clear a how he was notified of this.
- In January 2021 the Council sent Mr X a summons for £152.33 he still owed for 2019/20. Mr X disputed the amount as he believed it was calculated incorrectly.
- The Council responded and explained the remaining balance from 2019/20 was subject to a special arrangement for Mr X to pay £51 a month from 1 September. As he had not paid it the Council issued a summons. The Council agreed to withdraw the summons as it accepted it had not sent a reminder notice. It issued a revised bill to be paid by 1 March 2021.
- Mr X emailed the Council as he did not consider the bill added up. The Council responded and explained the bill showed his council tax for April to June 2019 included a 25% discount due to a disregarded person and was £185.38 and then from June 2019 to March 2020 it was £1045.20. Subtracting benefits of £800.25 and payments made of £278 left a balance owed of £152.33. Mr X remained unhappy and said he would complain to the Ombudsman.
- The Council apologised for the inconvenience caused by it sending three bills. It explained again how the charge was calculated for the 2019/20 council tax. It said Mr X owed £185.38 for April to June 2019 which should be added to the £1045.20 owed for June 2019 to March 2020 giving an amount owed of £1230.58. This caused Mr X more confusion. Mr X remained unhappy and complained to the Ombudsman. We asked the Council to consider the complaint.
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint in February 2021. The Council provided a detailed breakdown of how the outstanding charge of £152.33 was calculated. It accepted it sent three bills on one day and apologised for any confusion caused.
- Mr X remained unhappy and the Council responded at the second stage of its complaints procedure in March 2021. It apologised Mr X was sent three bills on one day. It explained the incorrect bills should have been removed from the post and only the third one sent. It said it could arrange payment plan to assist with payment of the outstanding bill. Mr X remained unhappy.
- We contacted the Council to query why Mr X received a summons for his 2019/20 council tax without any prior warning. The Council explained recovery action was halted in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It explained it had issued Mr X with a final notice in October 2019. Mr X had not maintained the special arrangement put in place following this. So, when recovery started again in January 2021 the Council issued its first batch of summonses.
- Mr X’s council tax liability has changed several times due to changes in his circumstances and benefit entitlements. As a result, the Council has reissued bills and set up new payment arrangements. While this was confusing for Mr X it was not due to Council fault. However, the Council was at fault when it sent Mr X three different bills on one day. It has already apologised for the confusion and distress this caused. That was an appropriate remedy.
- Mr X queried how the bill for £152.33 for his 2019/20 council tax was calculated. The Council’s email responses, in trying to explain this, were not incorrect but did cause Mr X more confusion. I fall short of calling this fault and in any case the Council’s complaint responses clearly set out how it had calculated that Mr X owed it £152.33 for 2019/20. So, there is no outstanding injustice to Mr X.
- Councils have a duty to collect council tax and the legislation sets out the process to follow in doing so. The Council sent Mr X a summons in January 2021 for his 2019/20 council tax. As the Council had previously already sent Mr X a final notice in October 2019 it was legally entitled to do this. However, given the lack of contact between November 2019 and January 2021 I would have expected the Council to have contacted Mr X about the debt before issuing a summons. In any case, the Council has used its discretion to withdraw the summons, so this has not caused Mr X a significant injustice.
- In its stage 2 response the Council advised Mr X to contact the Council to make an arrangement to pay the debt. It is open to Mr X to do so.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council was at fault. It has already remedied any injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman