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Billing confusion prompts Barnet bailiff action

A catalogue of clerical confusion and billing errors led to a Barnet resident being unfairly threatened with court action for not paying her council tax, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The woman told London Borough of Barnet her daughter had moved out of the home they shared, and requested the council apply the single person’s discount to her bill. Instead, the council closed her original account and created a new one for her.

Over the next 10 months the council sent her 20 bills. Some of the bills showed her account was in credit, others showed a deficit. The council never offered the woman an explanation for the differing amounts or told her that the credits she had accumulated could not be used to offset the bill.

The woman asked the council to communicate with her by post because she struggled to access her emails. It ignored her request and for years it continued to pursue its inflexible policy of emailing everyone regardless of their circumstances. This caused the woman further confusion about where she stood with her bills.

When the correct bill was finally issued, the woman was only given a few weeks to pay. The council obtained a liability order for the debt through the courts and referred this to bailiffs, who traced the account to the wrong address.

The woman complained to the Ombudsman after she was not satisfied with the way the council handled her complaint. The Ombudsman’s investigation found fault with the way the council handled the woman’s council tax account, and for errors it found in the council’s complaint handling.

Paul Najsarek, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“Councils across the country handle millions of council tax accounts every year, and in the vast majority of cases, these are billed and administered without a hitch. This case highlights the importance of getting the basics right, and demonstrates what can go wrong when seemingly minor errors are compounded by too rigid policies.

“In this case, instead of going through the complicated process of closing the woman’s account and creating a new one when her circumstances changed, the council should have simply applied the discount to her original account and put her bill on hold for a month.

“This confusion led to the woman spending 10 months unsure of where she stood, and ultimately led to her being taken to court and her debt referred to bailiffs.

“I am pleased the council has already removed the costs of court action from the woman’s account and hope the steps it has now agreed to take will ensure other people in the borough are not affected in the same way.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman remedies injustice and shares learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has agreed to waive the bailiff fees and apologise to the woman. It will also pay her £334 which can be used to clear the remaining council tax balance.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to review the content of its council tax bills to include a clear explanation of when credits of council tax support are not refundable and to remind staff to apply a ‘bill inhibit’ for a month.

It will also review its communications policy to ensure people who do not want to correspond electronically can access services and communication. It will also provide staff training on complaint handling.

Related Content : London Borough of Barnet (21 017 371)

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