London Borough of Merton (22 009 104)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 21 Dec 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained the Council delayed responding to his appeal against its decision to charge council tax. Mr X also complained the Council sent bailiffs to his home to collect the debt while he was appealing against the Council’s decision. Mr X says this has caused him distress. The Council was at fault, but it has taken appropriate action to remedy any injustice caused by this fault.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained the Council delayed responding to his appeal against its decision to charge council tax. Mr X also complained the Council sent bailiffs to his home to collect the debt while he was appealing against the Council’s decision. Mr X says this has caused him distress.

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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. 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 read Mr X’s complaint.
  2. I considered information provided by Mr X and the Council.
  3. 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

Background information

  • The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 cover both the way Councils collect payments of Council tax and the way Councils can recover Council tax debt. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 and associated regulations cover the way bailiffs may recover debts.
  1. The Council tax bill for the year is due on the 1st April. A Council will usually collect payment through monthly instalments. If any instalment is missed the Council will send the liable person 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).
  2. To use the various powers available to it to recover unpaid Council tax, a Council has to apply to the Magistrates Court for a liability order against those it believes are liable. Once a Council has obtained a liability order it can take recovery action.
  3. A liability order gives a Council legal powers to take enforcement action to collect the money owed. This can include 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.
  • Council tax reduction (CTR, also known as council tax support) is a discount, not a benefit. If someone is paid too much CTR the Council can reduce the amount of CTR and so increase the amount of council tax owed. We call these changes CTR reversals. Sometimes reversals are created because the council has miscalculated the CTR, perhaps ignoring information it had, or using information it should not have used.
  1. Councils can award discretionary CTR to reduce a claimant’s Council tax, using their powers under S13A(1)(c) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 (as amended). Each council should have its own scheme. Somebody suffering financial hardship because of a decision about wrongly paid council tax reduction, can apply for a discretionary reduction. Appeals about those decisions are to the Valuation Tribunal.

What happened

  1. This is a summary of events, outlining key facts and does not cover everything that has occurred in this case.
  2. Mr X moved into his home in May 2021. The Council supported him to move from a short-term housing scheme. The Council sent a Council tax demand to Mr X a week after he moved in.
  3. Mr X wrote to the Council in September. He stated he was not working, and he thinks the Council is responsible for the Council tax.
  4. The Council responded and stated Mr X is responsible for paying the Council tax. It directed him to contact the benefits team and provided the contact details if he wanted to apply for Council tax support.
  5. Mr X responded and said he did not pay Council tax at his previous address, he is not working and wants the Council to sort out the Council tax.
  6. The Council complained to the court, who issued a summons for non-payment of Council tax in October. The summons was withdrawn a week later, and the Council said it was issued in error. The Council wrote to Mr X and informed him the department for work and pensions (DWP) had told the Council he wanted to claim Council tax support. The Council stated he needed to apply for this support and provided information on how to apply. The letter stated Mr X needed to apply and provide all information requested within one month. It stated if the Council did not receive the information within one month, the application would be closed. The Council wrote to Mr X again and asked him how many people were living in the home. He replied in November and confirmed he lived alone.
  7. The Council wrote to Mr X in December saying he may be able to pay 25% less as the only person living in the home and requested he filled in a form. The Council then updated the Council tax demand on the same day to include the 25% reduction and sent the demand to Mr X.
  8. The Council issued a second Council tax reminder notice in January 2022. This noticed confirmed if Mr X did not pay, it would start legal proceedings against him.
  9. Mr X replied saying the Council had not responded to a letter saying he was unemployed and did not pay Council tax at his previous address. He asked why he was being asked to pay now. The Council responded and directed him to a different department where he could discuss Council tax support. The Council applied to court for a summons for unpaid Council tax which was issued the following day.
  10. The Council received a universal credit notification at the start of February 2022. The Council wrote to Mr X to inform him it had assessed the universal credit notification and confirmed he would get Council tax support of £19.07 per week from when the information was received.
  11. Mr X wrote to the Council and stated the Council helped him move and wanted the Council tax support to be backdated to when he moved into his home and wanted enforcement action stopped.
  12. The Council responded and said it was not an automatic right that anyone gets Council tax support and Mr X had to apply for it. The Council sent two letters inviting him to apply for Council tax support, but he did not apply.
  13. Mr X replied and requested a review of his Council tax. He stated he was on universal credit and was told when he moved in, he would not need to pay Council tax.
  14. Bailiffs issued an enforcement notice in April 2022.
  15. The Council responded to Mr X’s review request in June 2022 and requested more information.
  16. Bailiffs visited Mr X’s home in July 2022. The bailiffs left the enforcement notice at Mr X’s home.
  17. The day after the bailiffs visited his home, Mr X complained to the Council. He said he applied for a review of his Council tax at the end of March 2022 and had not heard from the Council until June 2022. He said he assumed the Council had accepted his review request and the case closed. The Council wrote to Mr X the day after his complaint. It stated they were still awaiting the information it had requested.
  18. The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint in August 2022. It stated people are still liable for Council tax when an appeal is made. The response acknowledged and apologised for the delay but stated he had not provided all the information requested. The Council agreed to freeze the debt until it had completed the appeal process. It again requested the information from Mr X.
  19. Mr X requested the Council escalate the complaint to stage two in September and provided the additional information the Council had requested.
  20. The Council responded at the end of September. The Council agreed the internal communication between departments was not good enough and explained teams would consider any appropriate action on a case by case basis and this could include putting a hold on enforcement action until the appeal is resolved. The response confirmed Mr X did not contact the Council or the bailiffs to discuss the case when he received letters about the debt.
  21. The Council reviewed the information provided by Mr X the day after its stage two response and provided full Council tax support and confirmed Mr X owed no money.
  22. Mr X was not satisfied with the Council’s response and has asked the Ombudsman to investigate. Mr X would like the Council to compensate him for his distress.
  23. In response to my enquiries the Council stated there was a delay in this case but there was also delay from Mr X when it had requested information. It confirmed the Council does continue to pursue debt when an appeal has been made.

My findings

  1. The Council has provided an account of Mr X’s council tax payments and detailed the reminders and notices sent before it obtained a liability order. I am satisfied the Council followed the correct process in obtaining a liability order. The Council is entitled to send any Council tax debt to bailiffs. I do not find fault with the Council’s actions.
  2. Mr X was invited to apply for Council tax support twice in October 2021. He did not apply for this support.
  3. The Council has acknowledged there was a delay in responding to Mr X’s appeal and has confirmed the learning it has taken from this. The Council was at fault. We are satisfied with the actions the Council has taken to remedy any injustice caused by this fault.
  4. Mr X did not provide all the evidence needed when he appealed against his liability for paying Council tax. When he did provide this information, the Council accepted his need for Council tax support and removed his Council tax liability.
  5. The Council has written off all Council tax and associated costs with passing the debt to bailiffs, so Mr X is not out of pocket. I do not find the Council at fault.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault on behalf of the Council, but it has already remedied any injustice caused by this fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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