Guidance on remedies

Part 5

Subject specific guidance - Benefits and taxation


Councils can take recovery action for money owed for business rates, council tax, parking penalties, and other charges. Such recovery action should take account of the personal circumstances of the complainant, including any vulnerability. Where the result of a claim for a council tax reduction is not known, an appeal is underway, or a complaint is being investigated, which could affect the level of debt, councils should normally suspend recovery action while they deal with the issue.

A council should put right any injustice arising from fault by bailiffs acting on its behalf. Where distress is caused by recovery action, such as when a visit by a bailiff was avoidable, regardless of whether this was the fault of the council or the bailiff, the council should remedy this extra distress.

Failures in communication between a council and bailiffs, including passing a complaint between the council and bailiffs without addressing it, can cause significant additional distress, and incur time and trouble for the person affected.

Faults in dealing with claims for support can cause financial hardship. For housing benefit, they can cause complainants to incur rent arrears and face the risk of eviction. Faults in this area can also affect landlords. Complainants may also face financial hardship and recovery action while waiting for decisions on financial support.

Corrective action

  • Without further delay, decide a benefit or discount claim.
  • Stop recovery action or repossession until a decision is made on a benefit or council tax reduction or discount claim.
  • Consider a fresh application for benefit or other reduction. This should be by an officer not previously involved with the case. The council should then issue a decision within four weeks or sooner.
  • Restore review or appeal rights.
  • Forward a delayed appeal to the relevant body within four weeks or sooner.
  • Provide clear information about a debt, how it arose, and how it was calculated, showing how any payments have been allocated.
  • Stop a debt recovery process from the point at which fault occurred, removing any costs that were therefore wrongly incurred.
  • Reduce a backdated debt where the reason for its creation was fault by the council.
  • Pay any backdated grant or other debt reduction.

Quantifiable loss

  • Refund any court costs or bailiff fees paid when, but for the fault, would not have been paid.
  • Pay back any costs incurred where the complainant could not use a vehicle that had been incorrectly immobilised
  • Where benefit was incorrectly paid to a tenant instead of a landlord, pay the equivalent amount to the landlord.

Symbolic payments

  • Payments for avoidable distress associated with unnecessary recovery action will usually fall in the ‘modest’ range of up to £500. But symbolic payments for distress may be greater if action continues for more than a few weeks or includes removal of goods, or if the complainant is particularly vulnerable.

Service improvement

  • Check for other cases affected by the same fault.
  • Update publicly available information, for example about how the person can appeal a decision.
  • Review internal guidance and brief staff on any changes.
  • Review application forms and the application process to ensure it is accessible to all.

Context – aggravating and mitigating factors

Injustice caused by delay in dealing with an appeal may not be clear until the result of the appeal is known. It will be greater if the appeal is upheld than if it is unsuccessful. But delay is likely to cause anxiety regardless of the result of the appeal.

  • Distress arising from ongoing recovery action while a complainant’s true financial position is unknown should be assessed in line with general guidelines on distress. Receipt of a Notice Seeking Possession will generally lead to a remedy at the modest end of the range, whereas injustice from an avoidable eviction is likely to merit a significant payment. But this is not a tariff – all circumstances will be relevant.
  • If an avoidable eviction causes homelessness, then the remedies in that section may also apply.
  • If the complainant is vulnerable, a higher payment for distress and time and trouble may be justified (see general guidance above on vulnerability).

Remedy examples

Council Tax
Mr X complained the council issued him a council tax bill he said he was not liable to pay. The council demanded payment from Mr X and threatened to pursue legal action if he did not pay it.
We found the council was at fault because it did not notify Mr X of his appeal rights to the Valuation Tribunal. We also found the council’s billing letter for council tax and its website did not provide information on council tax liability appeals.
Remedies included:
  • apologise to Mr X for taking steps without properly advising of appeal rights.
  • restore Mr X’s appeal rights by re-issuing him the council tax bill containing relevant information about how to appeal.
  • update its standard letters and website so that they provide information to people about council tax liability appeals.
Business rates
Mr X complained the council did not properly assess his application for small business rates relief. He ran a business from three properties for which he applied for small business rates relief. The council had granted Mr X small business rates relief for each property.
However, years later, the council found it had made an error when it granted Mr X the small business rates relief which resulted in Mr X owing it several thousand pounds. Our investigation found the council was at fault for how it handled Mr X’s applications. This caused him distress. However, Mr X was liable to pay the debt.
Remedies included:
We considered the service improvements the council made were appropriate. We therefore asked it to provide us with evidence it had implemented these service improvements.  
  • apologise to Mr X and pay him a symbolic amount for its failure to properly assess his applications and for the distress the matter caused him.
  • set up an affordable payment plan with Mr X to support him to clear the debt.
The council had recognised its error and so had already put service improvements in place to prevent a recurrence of fault.
These included:  
  • reviewing with staff the criteria an applicant needs to meet for them to be eligible for small business rates relief; and
  • regularly reviewing accounts in relation to small business rates relief so it can identify any issues earlier on.
Ms X complained about how the council applied the benefit cap to her housing benefit claim and dealt with an increase to her rent.
We found the council wrongly told her to contact the Department for Work and Pensions rather than considering whether to check itself. It failed to properly consider information she provided about her income. Had it acted correctly, the council would have removed the benefit cap sooner. It also failed to give her a clear explanation of restrictions that applied to her rent.
Remedies included:
  • apologise and explain the process to Ms X.
  • make a symbolic payment.
  • review its process for someone querying income used to apply a benefit cap, particularly when it is using income figures that differ from the last benefit cap notice it received.
Ms X complained the council delayed passing an appeal about a housing benefit overpayment to a tribunal. We found there were potential grounds to delay but this was a decision for the tribunal, not the council. This fault caused her uncertainty.
Remedies included:
  • apologise and pay a symbolic financial remedy.
  • carry out a review of its service standards to ensure it learnt lessons from what went wrong and avoided future delay in passing cases to the tribunal service.
Miss X complained the council wrongly told her to claim housing benefit. We found the council gave misleading advice and should have told her to claim universal credit.
Its wrong advice delayed her claim, causing her to miss out on benefits she was likely to be entitled to, as well as inconvenience.
Remedies included:
  • apologise, pay for loss of housing costs and make a symbolic payment.
  • review and update guidance for benefit service officers to ensure they understand and are clear about eligibility for housing benefit.
Local welfare
Ms X complained about how the council dealt with her claim for hardship relief for her business. It decided she did not qualify for a small business grant.
We found the council delayed dealing with the application, confused it with a grant application and then refused her application, giving reasons based on incorrect facts or incorrect interpretation of policy.
Remedies included:
  • apologise, make a symbolic payment for uncertainty created by poor administration.
  • make a fresh decision on the application for rate relief taking account of our findings.
  • review its discretionary rate relief policy taking account of our findings, including giving advice to officers on taking account of alternative sources of financial support, giving clear advice and explaining what happens if someone is dissatisfied with the outcome of their relief request.
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