The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains the Council unfairly added enforcement agent fees for council tax arrears when it knew he had changed address. The Council has agreed to remove the agent’s visit charges.
- The complainant whom I shall call Mr X, complains the Council has unfairly taken recovery action for council tax arrears when he contacted it about using the wrong address for him. The Council’s enforcement agent has added extra charges. Together with the summons costs, these total £442.50.
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 an organisation’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 complaint and the copy correspondence provided by the complainant. I considered the documents the Council provided. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
What I found
- Mr X owned a property which he let to tenants. When it became empty in 2021, the Council sent Mr X a bill for council tax in May. It sent the bill to his last known address for council tax purposes. The Council then sent Mr X a final reminder and a then a summons in June 2021. The Council added summons costs of £112.50. The total amount due was £1762, which was now due in full because the Council had issued a summons.
- Mr X received the first bill in early July 2021, when it was forwarded to his new address. He paid £369 (two monthly payments) using the Council’s automated system. He did not contact the Council to advise it of his new address or to check the current outstanding balance.
- The Council obtained a liability order at court in July 2021. Costs of £15 were added for the liability order. The Council wrote to Mr X regarding the liability order.
- At the end of July, because Mr X had not paid or contacted it, the Council passed the account to its enforcement agent. On 10 August the enforcement agent added a £75 compliance fee and wrote to Mr X. The agent still held Mr X’s old address.
- On 17 August Mr X received the summons which had been forwarded to him. He says he called the Council and spoke to an officer who advised him to pay £30 as he had now let the property to a new tenant. Mr X emailed the Council and said he had just received the summons. He said he had wrongly assumed that the lettings licence team were part of the council tax department as it had his current address. He gave his correct address and advised that a new tenant had moved in. He asked the Council to send him a new bill.
- On 26 August the enforcement agent visited Mr X’s old address, and then contacted him by telephone when it found this was the incorrect address. Mr X paid the full amount to the agent. This included a charge for the visit stage of enforcement which was £235.
- The next day the Council revised Mr X’s council tax liability taking account of the new tenant. This meant that Mr X’s council tax account went into credit. However, the Council did not remove any charges or fees for the recovery action.
- Mr X complained to the Council through its complaints procedure. He said that the Council knew he had changed address, but it wrote to the wrong address. As a result, it added significant extra charges which were unfair. He said he was in credit by the time of the liability order hearing, because he had paid two months council tax. In his view the Council had stolen his money when its agent had demanded over £1700. He asked the Council to refund the overpaid council tax including the fees of £442.
- The Council replied that the first its council tax department knew about his new address was on 17 August. It said other departments could not pass on information about changes in addresses unless they had written permission. It considered it had carried out the correct recovery procedure when Mr X did not make payment. It confirmed that Mr X’s account was now in credit which it would refund, but it did not agree it should remove any of the costs and agent’s fees.
- Based on the information I have seen so far, I do not consider the Council was at fault in its recovery action between June and mid August. The Council’s council tax team did not have Mr X’s new address. While another department had his new address it could not pass that information on. It was not due to a fault by the Council that it took several weeks for the first bill to reach Mr X.
- When Mr X paid two instalments in July 2021, these were late. It does not appear that he contacted the Council to say the address on the bill was wrong and he did not check the outstanding balance. By the time Mr X made payment the Council had already sent a summons. This meant that the full amount was now due and payable. If Mr X had called the Council, it may have been possible to make an arrangement.
- Mr X did not contact the Council until after it had engaged the enforcement agent.
- I consider that the Council correctly added the summons cost, and the liability order costs. The enforcement agent’s compliance fee of £75 was also correct. But I am concerned that when Mr X emailed the Council on 17 August 2021 to advise of his correct address and his new tenant, it did not hold recovery or request that the enforcement agent return the account. The Council now had information that would significantly reduce Mr X’s liability and it was clear that delay in taking action could lead to additional costs. As a result, the agent charged an additional £235 for the visit stage of enforcement to Mr X. I consider this apparent failure to take action is fault causing injustice in the form of additional charges.
- I note Mr X called the Council on 17 August when he received the summons. He says the officer told him to pay £30 for the few additional days until his liability ended. The Council’s notes of the telephone call show that Mr X advised that new tenants had moved in, but do not indicate that the officer gave any advice about payments. The evidence about this call is contradictory and it is not possible to determine exactly what was said. However, I note Mr X did not make any further payments. I do not consider there is sufficient evidence of fault here.
- I recommended that within 6 weeks of my decision the Council should
- apologise to Mr X for the faults I have identified and
- refund £235 for the enforcement agent fees that could have been avoided.
- Remind officers they should consider placing a hold on accounts with enforcement agents when customers advise they have not received recovery notices.
- The Council has agreed to the remedy I proposed, and so I have completed my investigation and closed the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman