The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council was at fault due to its bailiffs overcharging Miss V more than she was liable for in council tax arrears. This caused Miss V an injustice, but the Ombudsman is satisfied with the actions of the Council and bailiffs in remedying this.
- The complainant, who I refer to as Miss V, is complaining about enforcement action by the Council for unpaid council tax. Specifically, she says the Council has ignored her vulnerable person status due to a recent bereavement and is refusing to reinstate her payment plan.
- Miss V also complained the Council, by way of its Enforcement Agent (bailiffs), had deducted funds greater than the amount for which she was liable for.
- As a desired outcome, Miss V wants her payment plan reinstated, her vulnerability status recognised and to be reimbursed for her overpayments.
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. 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
- I have reviewed Miss V’s complaint to the Ombudsman, Council and bailiffs. I have also had regard to the responses of the Council and its bailiffs, including supporting documents. Both Miss V and the Council received an opportunity to comment on a draft of my decision before reaching a final view.
What I found
- If you fall behind with council tax payments, the council may apply to the magistrates' court to make a 'liability order'. This is a court order that states that you owe council tax but have not paid it. The council will also add on any court costs they have had to pay.
- Once the council has gained a liability order in your name, they can take further action against you. This is called 'enforcement action' and can include using bailiffs to try and take your goods, making deductions from earnings or making deductions from benefits. The council can decide which type of enforcement action to use. However, they can only use one type of enforcement action at a time for each liability order that they have in your name.
- Section 12 of the Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014 (the Regulations) regulates how enforcement fees are charged. It says where the debtor (the person owing a debt) is a vulnerable person, the fee or fees due for the enforcement stage are not generally recoverable.
- In 2014, the Ministry of Justice published the ‘Taking Control of Goods: National Standards’ (2014). This guidance on enforcement action states:
“Some groups who might be vulnerable are listed below. However, this list is not exhaustive. Care should be taken to assess each situation on a case by case basis. This includes, but is not limited to, the elderly, people with a disability, the seriously ill, the recently bereaved and/or single parent families.”
- In Mid-2019, the Council directed bailiffs to collect payment from Miss V for unpaid council tax. Miss V then complained to the Council about her vulnerability status due to the recent bereavement of her father.
- In August 2019, the Council responded to Miss V saying that as the outstanding balance had been passed to bailiffs, it could not intervene in the matter. Further, it told Miss V if she wished to complain, she must do so with the bailiffs directly.
- In September 2019, Miss V entered an arrangement with the bailiffs to pay her outstanding council tax balance. The arrangement was Miss V would pay an amount at the beginning of October 2019 and every month thereafter until the arrears were cleared. However, no payment was made at the beginning of December 2019 and Miss V was issued with several text reminders to make payment. Following no contact from Miss V, the bailiffs considered the payment arrangement broken.
- In December 2019, Miss V received a collection visit from the bailiffs which led to her incurring £250 in enforcement fees. Later, Miss V entered a new arrangement with the bailiffs to pay her arrears. However, Miss V complained to both the Council and bailiffs that she had been overcharged and both were not considering her vulnerability status.
- In early December 2020, the bailiffs wrote to Miss V accepting fault for overcharging her. It accepted Miss V was a vulnerable person and therefore exempt from being charged enforcement fees. Further, the bailiffs said the overcharge was a result of a system error and the Council would contact Miss V to repay the overcharge. It also said it would pay Miss V £150 compensatory payment because of the fault.
- In mid-December 2020, the Council wrote to Miss V to confirm the bailiffs had paid her overpayment of £175 to the Council. In response, the Council said it had written off the costs on Miss V’s council tax account, therefore creating a credit for the same amount. It told Miss V the credit could either be transferred to her current year council tax bill or be refunded to her.
- In the first instance, Miss V complained the bailiffs would not reinstate her payment plan or recognise her vulnerability status. I note following further communications between all parties to the complaint that Miss V’s payment plan was reinstated, and her vulnerability status recognised. However, when Miss V told the Council she was vulnerable initially, it should have either assessed this itself or told the bailiffs to make the determination. I see no evidence this was actioned until much later in the process. In my view, an earlier assessment would have meant Miss V would not have bee charged enforcement fees at all. The Council was therefore at fault and this led to an injustice in the form of distress and unwarranted payments for enforcement fees.
- With respect to Miss V’s overpayments, the bailiffs admitted it overcharged Miss V more than she was liable for. This was on account of a system error and the Council and bailiffs working to determine Miss V’s vulnerability status. As the actions of the bailiff’s collection a Council debt constitute the actions of the Council, I find the Council was at fault in this respect. In my view, this caused Miss V distress and time and trouble pursing her complaint, longer than was necessary in the circumstances.
- The Council has arranged to repay Miss V her overpayments made to the bailiffs. Further, the bailiffs offered £150 to Miss V as a compensation payment in light of the identified injustice above. In my view, the compensation payment is proportionate to the injustice Miss V suffered and I do not propose to suggest an alternative remedy.
- The Council was at fault due to its bailiffs overcharging Miss V more than she was liable for in council tax arrears. This caused Miss V an injustice, but I am satisfied with the actions of Council and bailiffs in remedying this.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman