Council tax

This fact sheet is aimed chiefly at anyone who is experiencing problems with their council tax account and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

I have a problem with my council tax. Can the Ombudsman help me?

Sometimes, yes. But there are some matters the law does not allow us to look at:

  • We cannot deal with a complaint about something that affects nearly everyone living in a council’s area, such as the level of council tax it has set.
  • We cannot consider a council's decision to change its discount and exemption scheme, including increased charges for empty properties. The law says these decisions can only be challenged by a judicial review in the High Court.
  • We cannot normally deal with complaints about issues where you can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. These include:
    • the council tax band your property is in
    • whether you are liable for council tax
    • whether a property is your main residence or second home
    • whether you are entitled to an exemption or discount
    • whether an empty property premium applies, or
    • whether you are a student for council tax purposes.
  • We cannot look at what goes on in court.

We can consider other complaints about the way the council has dealt with your council tax.

How do I complain?

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising the council has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact page or complete an online complaint form.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We consider whether the council has done something wrong in the way it went about dealing with your council tax account which has caused you problems. Some issues we can look at are if the council:

  • failed to give you information you should have (such as entitlement to reductions in the tax or your right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal)
  • failed to tell you about or consider an application for a discretionary reduction in the council tax
  • failed to act on information you provided (especially where this affects your liability for council tax or your entitlement to discounts or exemptions)
  • delayed in dealing with disputes
  • made mistakes in dealing with your payments (such as failing to credit them to your account, allocating them to the wrong account, or failing to pay in council tax support you have been awarded)
  • continued to take recovery action against you when it shouldn’t (such as when you have already paid off the debt, or you are keeping to an agreed arrangement to pay the debt)
  • failed to pass on important information to the bailiffs (such as that you have cleared your arrears), or
  • delayed unreasonably in dealing withyour council tax support claim.

We can also look at complaints about bailiffs acting on behalf of the council, for example if they behave unreasonably or make unreasonable charges. (See our fact sheet on complaints about bailiffs).

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?

We cannot decide whether you are liable to pay council tax or whether you are entitled to exemptions or discounts. But, if we find that something has gone wrong in the way the council dealt with your council tax account we can ask it to:

  • take action to put the matter right, such as correcting mistakes on council tax records and issuing the right bills and demands
  • ensure that payments you have made or council tax support awards are properly paid into your account
  • deal with your correspondence or appeal
  • withdraw a summons or bailiffs and waive costs where appropriate, or
  • pay a financial remedy. Whether we ask for a financial remedy and the amount we recommend will depend on how you have been affected by what has gone wrong. For example if you have received any unnecessary summonses, liability orders or bailiffs visits because of the council’s errors. 

Where we find fault with the council’s procedures we will often recommend that the council makes changes so the same problem does not occur again in the future.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

The council said Ms X was responsible for council tax at a property she had left. Ms X disputed this and provided evidence. The council did not change its mind and did not tell Ms X about the Valuation Tribunal. The council got a liability order and involved enforcement agents; adding £435 to the alleged debt. The agents sent constant threats to Ms X saying they were on the way to her home. The council told Ms X about the Valuation Tribunal 2 years later. The Tribunal decided Ms X was not liable for the council tax.
The Ombudsman asked the council to remove the fees and costs and pay Ms X £1,050 for unnecessary time, trouble and distress it caused her. The council also agreed in future it would tell those who dispute liability about the Valuation Tribunal.
Miss Y owned a property, which she rented to a tenant. The tenant moved out. Miss Y told the council this, and it awarded her an exemption. Miss Y did not tell the council that she and her partner had moved in. A year later the council carried out a routine inspection, found the property occupied and sent Miss Y a bill for the arrears. Miss Y did not pay; the council took legal action and instructed bailiffs; this added legal costs and fees to her debt. Miss Y then asked for a student exemption and said she lived alone; the council discovered she lived with her partner and so was only entitled to a 25% discount. Miss Y made an arrangement with the bailiffs to pay the debt, but did not keep to this; the bailiffs took further action and added further fees. Miss Y complained to the Ombudsman that the council was making her pay the debt in large instalments and had added costs and fees. The Ombudsman did not uphold the complaint. Miss Y had not made payments. The council had added costs and fees properly, and there was no fault in the amount it wanted in instalments from Miss Y.

Other sources of information

Most councils have lots of information on council tax on their own websites.

There is also information on the Valuation Office Agency’s website at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/valuation-office-agency

To check your council tax band go to: www.gov.uk/council-tax-bands

The Valuation Tribunal's website is www.valuationtribunal.gov.uk

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman provides a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result the Ombudsman aims to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

November 2019