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West Northamptonshire Council (21 016 054)

Category : Transport and highways > Parking and other penalties

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: We will not investigate this complaint that the Council failed to deal with a representation against two penalty charge notices, issued to Ms X for driving in a bus lane, and that an enforcement agent visited. I am satisfied the Council will take appropriate action to remedy the injustice including cancelling the enforcement visit costs and giving Ms X a further opportunity to pay the debt.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complains the Council failed to deal with her representations against two penalty charge notices issued for driving in a bus lane. Ms X says she was told the account was on hold but a bailiff visited her home demanding payment. Ms X says she cannot afford to challenge the debt recovery order at court (Traffic Enforcement Centre). She wants the Council to deal with her representations, recall the bailiff and cancel the fines.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
  2. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
  3. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’, which we call ‘fault’. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint, which we call ‘injustice’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We do not start or may decide not to continue with an investigation if we decide:
  • there is not enough evidence of fault to justify investigating, or
  • any fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • further investigation would not lead to a different outcome.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered information provided by the complainant and discussed the complaint with her by telephone. The Council has provided the case documents on the two penalty charge notices (PCN’s) and clarified the current position. The information includes photographs of the driving contravention.

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My assessment

  1. I will not consider this complaint further for the following reasons:
  2. The Council sent the necessary notifications to Ms X at the correct address regarding two penalty charge notices (PCN’s). Ms X drove in the same bus lane on 16 May (PCN A) and 17 May 2021 (PCN B). She confirms receipt of the PCN’s but did not pay the fines or make a representation before the Council started debt enforcement, which it was entitled to do.
  3. The complaint about the debt recovery orders is outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction because Ms X had a right to challenge the orders at the County Court’s traffic enforcement centre (TEC, see paragraph 2 and 3 above). If the TEC refuses a late challenge the decision is reviewable by a judge.
  4. I consider it reasonable for Ms X to have gone to the TEC if she wanted to dispute the debt recovery. She could have gone in September 2021 when the Council sent her the debt recovery orders. The Council’s communication includes the form for a statutory declaration to the TEC. Ms X told the Council she knew that the declaration could be done without charge at the court. Ms X says it would take nearly an hour to get to the court but that is not sufficient reason for the Ombudsman to investigate. Only the TEC/County Court could cancel the debt recovery orders. The Ombudsman cannot achieve the outcome Ms X wants.
  5. There is one fault in the Council’s enforcement actions:
  6. On 5 October 2021 Ms X sent the Council a representation explaining why she had driven in the bus lane. She and her partner contacted the Council on 23 November and confirmed they wanted to challenge both PCN’s and for an enforcement agent visit later that day to be put on hold. The Council failed to consider the request properly or reply to the representations before the enforcement agent visited. When the Council replied it was entitled to advise Ms X that the appropriate way to challenge the debt recovery, at that stage, was to go to the TEC and this would result in the case being put on hold.
  7. I consider the enforcement visit should not have occurred and that visit caused Ms X the injustice of the visit costs. I do not consider there is any other injustice requiring a remedy having considered the actions of both parties.
  8. The Council has confirmed the debt on the first PCN (…270A) is £173. The debt on the second PCN (…327A), which has not yet gone to an enforcement agent, is £98.

Agreed Action

  1. The Council has agreed that it will:
      1. Send Ms X a written apology for the enforcement visit on 23 November 2021.
      2. It will cancel the enforcement visit costs of £235.
      3. It has put a hold on further enforcement action until 27 April to give Ms X an opportunity to pay the debt on both PCN’s. She should contact the enforcement agent if she has difficulty paying the PCN it is dealing with.
      4. The Council says its enforcement agent has recently recorded that Ms X is a vulnerable person and will deal with her on that basis.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint the Council failed to deal with a representation against two penalty charge notices, issued to Ms X for driving in a bus lane, and that an enforcement agent visited. I am satisfied the Council will take appropriate action to remedy the injustice including cancelling the enforcement visit costs and giving Ms X a further opportunity to pay the debt.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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