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West Oxfordshire District Council (21 002 651)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 23 Nov 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s actions regarding his council tax account. The Council is at fault because it issued Mr X a bill and failed to notify him of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. The Council has agreed to reissue Mr X’s bill and provide him with his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. The Council has also agreed to update its website and council tax bill letter so it provides information about council tax liability appeals.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about the Council’s actions regarding his council tax account and said it incorrectly calculated council tax he owes. He said the Council has been demanding payment from him and said it will pursue legal action to recover the money if he does not pay. Mr X would like the Council to stop pursuing him for the council tax bill he believes he is not liable to pay.

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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. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
  3. The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  4. 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 considered the information provided by Mr X and the Council.
  2. Mr X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on the draft version of this decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

What happened

  1. In May 2020, the Council issued Mr X with a council tax bill for £4576.11. The Council based this bill on Mr X’s residency at an address between the period of 2017 and 2020.
  2. The Council said it also wrote to Mr X at the same time to advise him it had imposed a £70 penalty on his council tax account as he had failed to advise the Council of changes to his household composition. The letter said, “A penalty is payable and recoverable in the same way as council tax. I enclose a revised council tax demand reflecting the inclusion of the penalty. If you disagree with the decision you have a right of appeal”. It set out the details of the Valuation Tribunal Service and the requirement to contact the Tribunal within two months of the date of the letter.
  3. Mr X said he never received the letter regarding the penalty charge which contained details of appealing to the Valuation Tribunal.
  4. Mr X contacted the Council and said the council tax bill was incorrect. He explained to the Council that during the billing period, he was temporarily living with other people at their properties which fell under other council areas. Mr X said he had bank statements which showed he was not living at the address associated with the council tax bill.
  5. The Council responded to Mr X and said the bank statements were not sufficient evidence to prove Mr X’s temporary addresses he stated he was residing at between 2017 and 2020. It said it needed to see evidence from the other council areas which showed Mr X had been registered as either the liable party or as a named occupant on their council tax records at those addresses. The Council said it could not amend Mr X’s council tax account until it received this information. It recommended Mr X pay his council tax bill in the meantime and said if Mr X failed to make the payment, this would result in legal and enforcement action to recover the debt.
  6. Mr X remained unhappy and complained to us.

Our investigation

  1. During our investigation, I reviewed the council tax bill the Council issued to Mr X. The council tax bill made no reference to the right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
  2. We asked the Council why it did not notify Mr X of his right of appeal in the council tax bill of £4576.11. The Council responded and said it had sent both the letter regarding the £70 penalty charge and council tax bill in one envelope to Mr X. Although it did not provide details of Mr X’s right of appeal on the bill, it said it did provide these details in the letter regarding the penalty charge. The Council said as the bill and the penalty charge were related issues, it considered it had adequately informed Mr X of his right of appeal. However, the Council said, “at the same time, I acknowledge that there is no right of appeal mentioned in the council tax bill itself and therefore, we will update our website with information on council tax liability appeals and refer to this on the reverse of council tax bills in the future”.

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Findings

  1. The Council did not notify Mr X of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal when it issued Mr X with the bill for £4576.11. Although the Council said it sent this bill with the penalty charge letter that contained details of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal, we cannot determine if Mr X received both letters.
  2. In addition, although the Council said the bill and the penalty charge were related issues, they were both different decisions. The wording of the letter suggested the right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal related to the issuing of the penalty charge, not to the liability for the debt. The Council should have provided Mr X with details of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal with the bill itself. The Council was at fault.
  3. When Mr X contacted the Council and disputed his council tax bill, in its response, the Council failed to inform him of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. This was fault.
  4. It is the role of the Valuation Tribunal and not the Ombudsman to consider disputes about council tax liability. It is the appropriate body to consider Mr X’s concerns about his liability for the council tax debt.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of the final decision, the Council has agreed to restore Mr X’s appeal rights by re-issuing to him his council tax bill for £4576.11 including details of his right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
  2. Within two months of the final decision, the Council has agreed it will update its website to provide information about council tax liability appeals.
  3. By the end of March 2022, in line with annual billing, the Council has agreed to update its council tax bill letter to provide information about council tax liability appeals.

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Final decision

  1. I have now completed my investigation. There was evidence of fault causing injustice which the Council has agreed to remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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