The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complained about the Council’s decision to bill her for empty business rates. We discontinued our investigation as the courts are best placed to determine disputes about liability to pay business rates.
- Miss X said the Council wrongly billed her for business rates and failed to apply small business rates relief (SBRR) to her account. Miss X said what happened caused her stress and anxiety. Miss X wanted the Council to apologise and apply SBRR to her account.
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’. We provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe there is another body better placed to consider this complaint. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))
How I considered this complaint
- I considered Miss X’s complaint and supporting papers and talked to her about the complaint.
What I found
- Miss X owned business premises (‘the Property’) in the Council’s area between September 2015 and July 2019. Miss X said she leased the Property to a third party for three years from June 2016.
- The available evidence showed contact between Miss X and the Council in 2019. The Council carried out a Land Registry search and, in 2019, billed Miss X for empty business rates charges on the Property back to 2015. The Council said it had had no previous knowledge of Miss X’s ownership of the Property.
- The available evidence also showed that during 2019 Miss X applied for SBRR during the term of her three-year lease of the Property to a third party. (SBRR reduces the business rates payable on some properties.) The Council said it twice visited the Property in 2019 and received a telephone call from Miss X during which she confirmed the Property was empty. It therefore believed the Property was unoccupied and SBRR did not apply to empty properties.
- At the Council’s request, Miss X produced some information about occupation of the Property. The Council told Miss X her information was not sufficient to show full use of the Property back to 2015 or any actual occupation and trading of a business there. The Council continued to hold Miss X liable for empty business rates on the Property.
- Liability for business rates is decided in the Magistrates’ Courts. A council can apply to the courts for a liability order where a business rates bill remains unpaid. People may then put their case for not being liable to pay the bill as a defence to those court proceedings.
- Miss X believed the Council was wrong to bill her for empty business rates on the Property. Her complaint therefore concerned a dispute about liability to pay business rates. It is for the courts to determine whether Miss X is liable for empty business rates on the Property. I therefore discontinued my investigation.
- I discontinued my investigation as the courts are better placed to consider Miss X’s liability to pay business rates on the Property.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman