The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B says the Council told him it had placed his council tax account on hold but then obtained a liability order and referred his debt to the bailiffs and delayed responding to his complaint. There is no evidence the Council told Mr B placing the council tax account on hold would not prevent it securing a liability order and the Council delayed responding to the complaint. An apology and payment to Mr B is satisfactory remedy.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr B, complained the Council:
- told him it had placed his council tax account on hold until 29 July 2019 but then obtained a liability order and referred his debt to the bailiffs; and
- delayed responding to his complaint.
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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and Mr B's comments;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided.
What I found
What should have happened
- The Local Government Finance Act 1992 gives local authorities the power to levy and collect a dwelling tax. This is known as council tax. The main legislation concerned with the collection and recovery of council tax is the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 (as amended) (the Regulations).
- The tax is payable by monthly instalments, traditionally ten from April to January. Councils have discretion to decide when the instalments will be payable, but there can only be one instalment for one taxpayer in any one month. The decision on dates is made before the start of the tax year and cannot be changed during the year. By agreement a council and a taxpayer may make a special payment arrangement outside the normal instalment scheme.
- Before a council can pursue someone for council tax it must send a demand. If a taxpayer misses a payment, a council must issue at least one reminder notice before issuing a summons for a liability order in the magistrates' court. The Council can then seek to recover payment of the sum in the liability order by various means.
- A liability order gives a council legal powers to take enforcement action to collect the money owed. The council can add the costs of obtaining the order to the person's debt.
- If someone does not pay the council tax, and the costs, the council can ask bailiffs (also referred to as enforcement agents) to collect the debt. Bailiffs charge fees which also must be paid.
- The Council’s guidance on council tax collection and recovery (the guidance) says the revenue service also include an information leaflet with the summons advising the resident to contact the Council before the hearing date to arrange payment and apply for any reductions. The leaflet also gives the opportunity to visit the Council’s service centre outside normal office hours to discuss the summons with Council officers.
- The guidance says although there is no requirement to send a notice of impending enforcement action once a liability order has been obtained the Council will issue such a letter in all circumstances before passing the case for enforcement action. That letter includes a request for further information form which the resident must complete with their employment and financial details and return to the Council within 14 days. This is a further opportunity to make an arrangement or have a debtors circumstances taken into account before enforcement action is taken. The Council will only make a payment arrangement if this information is supplied.
- Mr B has council tax arrears going back several years. As Mr B had not paid his council tax for the tax year 2019/20 the Council sent him reminders and then a summons. Mr B attended a summons evening on 16 July 2019. At that summons evening Mr B said his benefit application was to be reassessed as he was in receipt of a war pension. The officer Mr B spoke to agreed to place a temporary hold on the account until 29 July 2019. The Council still went ahead with its application for a liability order which was granted by the Magistrates Court. As the Council did not receive any payment from Mr B it then referred the debt to the bailiffs. The Council subsequently took the liability orders back from the bailiffs and has tried to set up a payment plan with Mr B to address his arrears.
- Mr B put in a complaint in February 2020. The complaint concerned a housing benefit overpayment as well as issues with the council tax account. The Council had not responded to that complaint by the time of a cyber attack in October 2020 which affected the Council’s ability to access its systems. The Council sent Mr B a complaint response in March 2021.
- Mr B’s representative raised another complaint on his behalf in March 2021 as he was concerned the Council had not responded to his concerns about the council tax account. The Council responded to that complaint in July 2020.
- Mr B says the Council told him it had placed his council tax account on hold when he attended a summons evening in July 2019. Mr B says despite that the Council then obtained a liability order and referred his debt to the bailiffs. Mr B says because he was misled at the summons meeting he did not have an opportunity to attend court to challenge the liability order.
- The Council explains that when a person has council tax arrears and it is agreed to put recovery of those arrears on hold it will normally still secure a liability order to protect the Council’s position. The Council says that point is usually explained by its officers when dealing with customers. The Council also says Mr B has a good knowledge of how liability orders are secured given the Council has secured several liability orders for Mr B’s council tax account in the past.
- I have carefully considered the documentary evidence. I appreciate what the Council says about the normal process it follows. However, the note from the summons evening attended by Mr B records only that the officer told Mr B the Council would place a temporary hold on his council tax account until 29 July 2019. There is no evidence in the note of that visit to suggest the officer told Mr B the Council would still seek a liability order. As there is no evidence the officer explained that to Mr B I consider it likely, on the balance of probability, that information was not given to Mr B. In those circumstances I consider Mr B had a reasonable expectation that the hold placed on his account would also mean the Council would not seek a liability order. Failure to make that point clear to Mr B is fault. As a result of that fault Mr B did not have an opportunity to attend court to challenge the liability order.
- The Council accepts it delayed responding to the complaint. The Council says the delay occurred because three different departments were involved in the complaint and it is likely each department believed the other was responding. The Council also points out there were issues with its ability to respond to complaints after the cyber attack in October 2020. There were significant delays in this case. For the first complaint response it was more than a year before the Council sent the formal response. I appreciate part of that period was affected by the cyber attack the Council experienced. However, the Council should have sent the complaint response well before that occurred. In addition there was also a delay responding to the complaint received in March 2021. Those delays combined are significant and represent fault.
- As remedy for the time and trouble Mr B has had to go to, his distress and his lost opportunity to challenge the liability order application I recommended the Council apologise and pay Mr B £100. In reaching the view this is an appropriate financial remedy I have taken into account the fact Mr B did not make any further payments towards his council tax in the council tax year 2019/20 and it is therefore likely the Council would have secured a liability order at a later date in any event. I have also taken into account the fact that although Mr B’s debt was passed to the bailiffs there is no evidence those bailiffs contacted Mr B about the debt. The Council has agreed to my recommendation. The Council has also confirmed that it has now addressed the issue of how complaints are handled when more than one department is involved by introducing a new complaint handling system. I welcome that.
- Within one month of my decision the Council should apologise to Mr B and pay him £100, which it can deduct from his council tax arrears.
- The Council has provided evidence to show it has introduced a new complaint handling system which should ensure complaints which involve more than one department are dealt with properly in future.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman