Council Tax Debt Recovery Policy

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1 Council Tax Debt Recovery Policy Updated: Ian Johnson June 2016

2 Introduction This policy outlines the recovery process for Council Tax and highlights the various stages that lead to the court issuing a liability order. The actions that can be taken once a liability order is obtained can have serious consequences for the debtor and the policy therefore outlines the steps that will be taken in considering the various options available, taking full account of each individual debtor s circumstances. Particular regard has been paid to the recommendations contained in the focus report issued by the Local Government Ombudsman: Can t pay? Won t pay? Using bankruptcy for council tax debts. The Process leading up to the Issue of a Liability Order Council Tax Bill A Council Tax bill will be issued at the start of the tax year to each person shown on the Council s records as responsible to pay the tax for a property. Council Tax bills will also be issued to a person who moves into a property, purchases a property or is a property owner and the property has become empty following, for instance, the vacation of a previous tenant. Council Tax payers are required to make their payments by the due dates shown on their bills. It is essential that these payments are received on or before the due date. Where payments are not received on time, recovery action will begin without delay in the form of a reminder or a final notice. Reminder Notice A reminder notice is issued where a person fails to pay the bill s instalments as due. The reminder notice will require payment of the reminder amount within seven days of the notice s date. Where payment is not made the right to pay by instalments is lost and the full balance will become payable within a further seven days. The maximum number of reminder notices issued in any financial year will be two. Final Notice If after two reminders there is a further failure to pay an instalment by the due date, a final notice will be issued and the right to pay by instalments will end. A final notice will be issued, without issuing a reminder, where the Council Tax bill does not provide for instalments, for instance where the bill relates to a previous tax year or the account has been closed. Summons If a Council Tax payer fails to pay the amount shown on the reminder (and 14 days have elapsed since the issue of the notice) or final notice (and seven days have elapsed since the issue of the notice), a summons will be issued. Costs will be incurred on the issue of the summons. The Council Tax payer will be urged to contact the Council immediately to discuss the account. Advice will be given on the

3 best course of action and, if appropriate, a payment arrangement offered. If the amount remains unpaid the Council will seek a liability order at a Court Hearing. This gives the debtor the opportunity to attend the Court, although the hearing can only decide whether the debtor is liable and has failed to pay in response to validly issued notices, not their ability to pay. Where the Court finds the debtor liable to pay, it must issue a liability order and costs will also be incurred at the hearing. Steps taken to recover the Council Tax debt following a Liability Order If an arrangement has been made, the enforcement of the Liability Order will be held until the agreed payment plan is cleared. Where payment of the amount shown on the summons plus costs is not made, or a payment arrangement has not been agreed a final demand before enforcement action will be issued confirming the grant of the Liability Order and requesting immediate payment. This will contain a legal request for certain financial information, including employment details. Where this information is not provided, further action may be taken in the Magistrates Court to obtain these details. This may result in a fine and additional costs being imposed. The final demand warns of the enforcement fees that will be incurred if the liability order is passed to an enforcement agent. These are known as the Compliance and Enforcement Stages. Pre-Compliance Stage Checks The Council will undertake checks on each case to determine the most appropriate method of enforcement. The decision as to which recovery method to use or whether to agree a payment arrangement will be based on information available regarding the Council Tax payer s circumstances relating to income and expenditure, household composition, level of payment offer and whether the person meets the Council s definition of vulnerability (See Appendix A). The Council will seek to pursue the most cost effective and efficient method of recovery where possible. Liability Order Powers A Liability Order gives the Council certain powers of enforcement which are listed below. In each case the Council will decide on the most effective course of action based on the size of the debt, the history of the case and the personal circumstances of the debtor. The Council will also have regard to its equality duties. The recovery options available are as follows: Attachment of Earnings This is a statutory power that allows the Council to issue an Attachment of Earnings Order to the debtor s employer to require that the employer makes deductions from the debtor s wages at rates specified by legislation. The Council has no power to reduce the amount to be deducted, as it is set by legislation, but may cancel an Order on the debtor s request if there are exceptional circumstances to justify such a cancellation. The Council can issue a maximum of two Attachment of Earnings Orders at any given time. This course of action is only appropriate where the debtor

4 is in stable employment (not self-employed) and their salary level is sufficient to clear the debt over a reasonable period of time. If the income level is low, depending on the size of the debt, it may be more appropriate to pursue a different course of action. Attachment of Benefits The Council may request the Department for Work and Pensions make deductions at rates set by legislation. The debtor must be in receipt of one of the following benefits: Income Support, Jobseeker s Allowance (income based), Employment Support Allowance (income based) or Guarantee Pension Credit. The rate of payment is very low and if there is a large debt, the Council may choose not to request this deduction and pursue alternative means of recovery. It may not be possible in any case to make an attachment if deductions are already being made for other debts. Attachment to Members Allowances This only applies to debts owed by elected Members of Council and allows the Council to claim up to 40% of their allowances to clear unpaid Council Tax. Charging Orders This applies where the debt exceeds a 1000 and allows the Council to register a charge, a security interest, in the debtor s property. The charge covers the debt amount, costs and interest granted to the Council. Before making the application, the Council will consider whether the debtor has sufficient equity in the property to cover the Council Tax debt. This means of recovery is less punitive than committal to prison or bankruptcy and may be more suitable for vulnerable debtors who have insufficient income to make an acceptable arrangement. Although the charge will safeguard the Council s financial interests a payment arrangement should still be sought from the debtor so that some income is generated. Once a charge is obtained, the Council may force a sale of the charged property after having regard to the debtor s vulnerability and adherence to any payment arrangement. Insolvency The Council may apply for a bankruptcy or winding up order to be issued against an individual or company respectively where the debt exceeds This course of action will be considered where there are known assets (where the asset is the property that is the subject of the debt a charging order will be considered but this will not preclude bankruptcy action there may for example be insufficient equity in the property or there may be multiple debts owed to the Council which could be satisfied through insolvency action). As substantial costs are payable by the debtor if an order is issued, in addition to the potential grave consequences such as the loss of the debtor s home, the Council will thoroughly examine the debtor s personal circumstances and fully consider the effect of these consequences on the debtor, particularly in respect of possible vulnerability, before applying for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy checklist at Appendix B is used to ensure these matters are considered.

5 Enforcement Agents The Ministry of Justice, a Department of Central Government, has made changes to the fees that Enforcement Agents can charge, in order to make the enforcement process more transparent and structured. These changes came into effect on 6 April Full details of the Regulations are contained in "The Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014, Statutory Instrument No. 1. Collection of Council Tax debt can be broken down into the following stages: Fees - Compliance Stage If a Liability Order is issued by the Magistrates' Court for unpaid Council Tax, this can be passed to an Enforcement Agent for collection. If this becomes necessary, once the Enforcement Agent receives the Liability Order, a fee of becomes payable. This fee is payable on each Liability Order referred to the Enforcement Agent. On receipt of each Liability Order, the Enforcement Agent will issue a written Notice of Enforcement that provides a minimum period of 7 clear days in which to pay the outstanding council tax or reach an agreement for payment with them. During the Compliance Stage, the Enforcement Agent may also contact the debtor by other means including telephone, text, fax or . Fees - Taking Control of Goods Following the expiry of the Compliance Stage, the Enforcement Agent will visit the debtor s property to seek to "Take Control of Goods". This action will add a further fee of If the debt owed exceeds , further fees will be payable. (See table below). At this stage, the debtor may still enter into a payment plan acceptable to the Enforcement Agent, known as a "Controlled Goods Agreement". This will prevent immediate removal of the goods seized. If the Enforcement Agent is unable to agree a payment arrangement or collect the amount outstanding, they must take control of the debtor s goods (possessions) and if this is necessary and they are taken to a place of sale or are sold, a further fee of will be payable. If the debt owed exceeds further fees will be payable in addition to the Enforcement Fees Compliance Stage - a fee of is incurred and becomes payable once a Liability Order is received by the Enforcement Agent. Enforcement stage Percentage Fees Percentage Fees Fixed Fee Over % 7.5%

6 Sale or Disposal Stage Percentage Fees Percentage Fees Fixed Fee Over % 7.5% Committal The Council may apply for committal to prison for up to three months as a last resort once the debt has been returned uncollected by the enforcement agent. The Council will review the individual s circumstances using all available resources prior to the application, particularly with regard to the vulnerability of the debtor. The magistrates will conduct an enquiry into the debtor s means and can make an order for payment, issue a suspended sentence with a payment order, order commitment to prison forthwith or remit the debt partly or fully if wilful refusal or culpable neglect cannot be found. If the debtor fails to attend the hearing the court will issue an arrest warrant. If the debtor is sent to prison, the Council Tax will still be payable although the Council will not be able to take any further enforcement action to recover the debt.

7 Appendix A Council Tax Vulnerable Persons Policy Introduction The Council will take account of an individual person s circumstances at each stage of Council Tax collection. In particular the Council will seek to identify any cases where a person appears to be vulnerable, particularly in the latter stages of recovery, to ensure that the most appropriate course of action is taken. This policy defines the circumstances in which the Council will consider a person to be vulnerable this will not preclude the Council from taking any form of recovery action but it will ensure that the circumstances of the vulnerable person are fully considered prior to any action being taken. With specific regard to the use of Enforcement Agents, the Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 gives protection to children and vulnerable adults so that an enforcement agent (previously known as a bailiff) may not take control of goods where a child or vulnerable person is alone on the premises. The Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014 prevents a local authority from recovering fees due at the enforcement stage from a vulnerable person unless the enforcement agent has given adequate opportunity for the debtor to get assistance and advice in respect of the exercise of enforcement powers. There is no definition within any of the Council Tax regulations of vulnerable person and this policy provides guidance as to what may constitute vulnerable and what actions should be taken to identify and deal with vulnerability. Definition A vulnerable person may include, but is not restricted to: A person who has a physical or sensory impairment, learning disability or mental health problem (The Royal College of Psychiatrists and Money Advice Trust s Debt collection and mental health: ten steps to improve recovery provides useful guidance and further definition of what constitutes a mental health problem) and who may be unable to protect themselves from harm or abuse Elderly, frail or confused older people The seriously ill (including long term) The recently bereaved Pregnant women (or those who have recently given birth)

8 Recently unemployed people Those who have obvious difficulty in understanding, speaking or reading English Anyone suffering severe hardship Guidance The Council will use all of the information available including council tax and council tax support records to identify vulnerability. Other Council services may also be contacted such as Housing or Social Services where this is appropriate. Where a person is in receipt of Income Support, income-based Jobseekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance an attachment to benefits will be considered in preference to other methods of recovery. Where employment details are known an attachment to earnings will be considered although the viability of this will depend on the size of the debt and the amount likely to be recovered under the attachment. If a person is considered to be vulnerable before or during the compliance stage additional efforts will be made to establish contact with the individual before advancing to the next stage. This may include a visit to the customer in their home or the offer of an appointment to discuss the situation. Where appropriate Social Services will be contacted to find out whether any relevant details are held and if relevant a person or body authorised to act on the person s behalf may be contacted (this may include another organisation such as the CAB, someone with power of attorney or a person for whom authorisation has been received to discuss their Council Tax) before taking further action. If a person is found to be vulnerable during the enforcement stage and the vulnerability of the person (or the extent of it) was not previously known, the Enforcement Agent will refer the case back to the office for further investigation as above and, depending on the outcome, possibly remove the enforcement stage fee. Where it has been established that the person is vulnerable but, after reasonable attempts to resolve the situation by other means, it is still necessary to proceed to the enforcement stage, authorisation will be sought from the Principal Council Tax & Enforcement Officer before further action is taken. Consideration may also be given to other methods of recovery such as charging order, bankruptcy or committal to prison but in each case careful consideration will be given to any vulnerability and guidance contained in the Recovery Policy will be followed. Relevant Regulations & Guidance Tribunals, Courts & Enforcement Act 2007 The Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 The Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014 The Certification of Enforcement Agents Regulations 2014

9 CIVEA Code of Conduct and Good Practice Guide 2012 Debt collection and mental health: ten steps to improve recovery (The Royal College of Psychiatrists and Money Advice Trust)

10 Appendix B Bankruptcy Checklist Is the total debt over 5,000 Is there a liability order? Is the debtor the owner of a property in England and Wales or own a substantial asset such as shares, annuities or business interest with a minimum value of ? Do any other departments within the Council, such as HB overpayment, income, Business Rates etc. have debts that can be included? Has a vulnerability check been carried out, i.e. with Adult Social Services, Mental Health Team, etc? see Council Tax vulnerable person s policy. Is there any correspondence to indicate that the property is up for sale or may be sold in the very near future etc? If this is the case a charging order may be more appropriate. Is there any evidence to suggest the property may have been let out or is empty? This may impact on liability and service of documents as well as whether the property may be disposed of as part of the bankruptcy. Yes/No Is the debtor receiving any benefits? Debtor to be encouraged to apply if entitled. We will look at length of time on benefits, age of debtor and consider whether alternative methods of recovery such as charging order or attachment of benefits should be implemented. Is there a suitable amount of equity in the property, which will clear the debt owing to the Council and bankruptcy costs? Has an insolvency search been carried out to see if the Official Receivers are already aware of the debtor? Do we have PAYE employment details which will allow an Attachment of Earnings? Do we have a satisfactory address for the debtor to allow the service of documents? Is the debtor entitled to any further discounts or exemptions? When was the last contact or payment? Has a home visit been undertaken? Has a pre-bankruptcy warning letter been issued to the debtor? Has a record of all of the above been saved on the system and or in the folder for the case? Date checklist completed Recommended by: Senior Recovery Officer Review

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