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Hartlepool Borough Council (21 011 869)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 25 Apr 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s handling of his council tax accounts. He was unhappy about an attachment of earnings order, liability for council tax bills, fairness over joint liability and lack of empathy by a Council officer. The Council was not at fault with the way the Council handled Mr X’s council tax accounts or communicated with him about these matters.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about the Council’s handling of his council tax accounts. He was unhappy about:
    • fairness over joint liability;
    • inaccurate information being given to his employer;
    • the amount of one of council tax bills that he was not able to challenge because he was not given information about how to appeal; and
    • a lack of empathy by the council officer dealing with his council tax accounts.

Mr X said this caused him stress, mental health problems and financial hardship.

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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. 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)
  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.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mr X about his complaint and considered the information he provided;
  2. I considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided;
  3. I considered the Council’s policies and relevant law and guidance; and
  4. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 cover both the way councils collect council tax and the way councils can recover council tax debt.
  2. Under council tax law a person occupying a property is usually liable for paying council tax. Council tax is usually paid by monthly instalments. If the person does not pay an instalment the council will issue a reminder. If a payment is still not made or a further payment missed, then the entire outstanding balance will be due (that is the full amount for the rest of the year).
  3. A council must issue at least one reminder before issuing a summons for a liability order hearing at the magistrates’ court, which is the start of the formal court process to recover the outstanding sum.
  4. A liability order gives a council the legal powers to take enforcement action to collect the money owed. It can do this by taking deductions from benefits, getting an attachment of earnings (by which deductions are taken directly from earnings by an employer and passed to the council) or using bailiffs. 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 Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 27 and 28 (1992) sets out who is joint and severally liable for council tax payments. This means that where two people are liable for council tax, a council can recover the full amount from either of them.

What happened

  1. Mr X has four council tax accounts which are or have been in arrears. Two council tax accounts are in the joint names of Mr X and his former partner. The Council has used an attachment of earnings order (AOE) to collect the arrears on one of those accounts (Property A).
  2. Mr X complained the Council unfairly pursued him for the outstanding money and did not pursue his former partner. I cannot comment on whether the Council collected any arrears from his former partner for data protection reasons. However, the Council was entitled to recover the arrears from either or both of them, so this does not amount to fault and therefore we have not investigated this aspect.

Property A

  1. In July 2021 Mr X complained about the AOE for Property A, which he said should end. At the end of July 2021, the Council agreed to suspend the AOE for Property A if he paid £10 per week towards the arrears, which Mr X agreed to do. Mr X said he tried to set up an arrangement for this but the officer dealing with the account was on leave and he was given no alternative. This meant he did not pay the agreed amount in August. In September, the Council told him it was writing to his employer to arrange a new AOE. At that stage, its records indicated there had been no direct debit in place on this account since January 2021.
  2. In September 2021, Mr X complained the Council had set up a new AOE without warning and had given inaccurate information to his employer in a telephone call. He said this meant his employer had to make enquiries about his finances. In response to the complaint, the Council suspended the AOE.
  3. Council records show it followed the correct process when dealing with the arrears on this account. Its record of the call to Mr X’s employer in late September 2021 says it told them there was no direct debit set up for this account, so the AOE was being reissued. Later the same day, it emailed the employer to advise it was suspending the AOE.

Property B

  1. Mr X disputed the liability period for property B in two emails in July and August 2021. Mr X said he did not live at Property B for the final 2 months of the tenancy and the landlord had moved back into the property. He said he was paying council tax at a different property in the Council’s area in that period. Mr X complained the Council ignored this and continued to pursue arrears for the period to the end of April 2021.
  2. The Council told Mr X it had evidence the tenancy agreement was in place until the end of April and therefore the landlord was not responsible for the council tax for the disputed period. The Council wrote to Mr X in August 2021 with information about his appeal rights.
  3. When I spoke to Mr X he said the Council officer dealing with the matter was not empathetic about his financial hardship and the impact this was having on his mental health.

My findings

Property A

  1. As explained above, Mr X and his former partner were both responsible for the council tax and the Council was entitled to pursue either or both of them for the arrears. My review of its records shows it followed the proper process when dealing with the arrears, including sending all relevant information to Mr X.
  2. The Council was entitled to contact Mr X’s employer when agreed payments were not made and the records do not show it gave them incorrect information. In any case, when Mr X contacted it, the Council agreed to suspend the AOE, which was appropriate action for it to take. The Council was not at fault.

Property B

  1. The Council followed the proper process when dealing with the arears on this account, including sending reminder letters and obtaining a liability order. It gave Mr X appropriate information about his appeal rights, and it was reasonable for him to use his appeal rights if he considered he was not liable for the amount claimed.
  2. Whilst I appreciate the situation was difficult for Mr X, I have not found fault with the Council’s actions.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation finding no fault with the Council.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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