Council tax enforcement in magistrates’ courts

22 Oct 2009 05:13 PM

Bridget Prentice has made a statement concerning council tax enforcement in magistrates’ courts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Bridget Prentice):

Local authorities use the magistrates’ courts to enforce non-payment of council tax. This process begins with an application (called a 'complaint') for the court to issue a summons informing the individual that the local authority is seeking unpaid council tax and asking the individual to attend court if they wish to challenge the court making a liability order for that amount. The issue of a summons for non-payment of council tax or non-domestic rates must be authorised by a Justice of the Peace or Legal Adviser with delegated powers from a Justices’ Clerk. Fees are chargeable and the decision of the court at the hearing must be recorded in a court register.

Investigations by Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) staff have identified examples of a small number of magistrates’ courts failing to follow the correct procedures. In particular HMCS has identified examples of fees not being charged to local authorities for issuing proceedings and some examples of a failure at Salford magistrates’ court to enter the results of applications for liability orders on the court register. More seriously two magistrates’ courts, Rochdale and Salford permitted the local authorities to issue summonses requiring attendance at court without the authorisation of the court.

This was a clear procedural failing and was immediately stopped when it came to light. Individuals and the magistrates concerned in subsequently hearing cases would not have been aware of this irregularity.

In all such cases individuals would have had ample opportunity to attend court if they wished to challenge the liability to have the non-payment enforced against them. However, they would not have been aware that the summons had not been properly issued. Had the summonses been correctly issued, there is no reason to think the consequences would have been any different in practice. Individuals should pay their council tax and this House would expect non-payment to be properly enforced.

Given the paucity of information available it is not practicable to identify the individuals concerned. The issues identified in Rochdale and Salford have been fully investigated and I am satisfied that correct procedures are now in place. A national check was carried out that revealed no similar practices and all courts have been reminded of the importance of following the correct procedures.