Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order

Helen Barker made this Freedom of Information request to Woking Borough Council

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Dear Woking Borough Council,

The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 (the "Regulations") confer a duty on the billing authority to exercise discretion under regulation 34(1) when deciding whether to institute a complaint to the Magistrates' court to enforce payment.

Regulation 34(1) as amended by Regulation 15 of SI 1992/3008 states, with the relevant part emphasised, as follows:

"If an amount which has fallen due under paragraph (3) or (4) of regulation 23 (including those paragraphs as applied as mentioned in regulation 28A(2)) is wholly or partly unpaid, or (in a case where a final notice is required under regulation 33) the amount stated in the final notice is wholly or partly unpaid at the expiry of the period of 7 days beginning with the day on which the notice was issued, THE BILLING AUTHORITY MAY, in accordance with paragraph (2), apply to a magistrates' court for an order against the person by whom it is payable."

Regulation 34(2) states as follows:

"The application is to be instituted by making complaint to a justice of the peace, and requesting the issue of a summons directed to that person to appear before the court to show why he has not paid the sum which is outstanding."

The following are examples (but by no means exhaustive) of what are reasonable factors a recovery officer should take into account in exercising discretion to institute a complaint to the Magistrates court under paragraph (2) of regulation 34 of the Regulations:

1. the level of debt outstanding

2. any payments made subsequent to the full amount becoming due and time remaining of the financial year

3. are circumstances indicative of the debt being settled without resorting to enforcement

4. consider if enforcing the debt would unnecessarily subject the taxpayer to additional costs etc. and therefore amount to a penalty (see 3 above)

5. ensure monies have been prioritised to maintaining the in-year debt

6. allocate to the in-year any monies posted to arrears (or sufficient of it) that would if it had not been misallocated prevented the in-year liability also falling in arrears (see 5 above)

7. check for benefit claims or appeals already in the system and refrain from taking enforcement action where such genuine cases are unresolved

Q1. Does Woking Borough Council exercise discretion before proceeding under regulation 34(2) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 to request a summons from a justice of the peace (it may be an automated process)

Q2. If yes to (1) what factors are taken into consideration

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

Comments, Woking Borough Council

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Woking Borough Council, Civic Office, Gloucester Square, Woking, Surrey GU21 6YL
Phone: 01483 755855 | Fax: 01483 768746 | Web: www.woking.gov.uk

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Comments, Woking Borough Council

“Thank you for your request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Your request was received on 06/05/2020

Coronavirus - Covid-19 important information

As a key public sector body, we are diverting our resources to help with challenges associated with the current public health emergency. This means that we are not able to deal with Freedom of Information (FOI) or Subject Access (Data Protection) requests. The position will be reviewed at the end of May 2020.
______________________________________________
Woking Borough Council, Civic Offices, Gloucester Square, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6YL
Phone: 01483 755855 | Fax: 01483 768746 | Web: www.woking.gov.uk

________________________________________
From: Helen Barker [[FOI #662384 email]]
Sent: 06 May 2020 07:40
To: Comments
Subject: Freedom of Information request - Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order

Dear Woking Borough Council,

The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 (the "Regulations") confer a duty on the billing authority to exercise discretion under regulation 34(1) when deciding whether to institute a complaint to the Magistrates' court to enforce payment.

Regulation 34(1) as amended by Regulation 15 of SI 1992/3008 states, with the relevant part emphasised, as follows:

"If an amount which has fallen due under paragraph (3) or (4) of regulation 23 (including those paragraphs as applied as mentioned in regulation 28A(2)) is wholly or partly unpaid, or (in a case where a final notice is required under regulation 33) the amount stated in the final notice is wholly or partly unpaid at the expiry of the period of 7 days beginning with the day on which the notice was issued, THE BILLING AUTHORITY MAY, in accordance with paragraph (2), apply to a magistrates' court for an order against the person by whom it is payable."

Regulation 34(2) states as follows:

"The application is to be instituted by making complaint to a justice of the peace, and requesting the issue of a summons directed to that person to appear before the court to show why he has not paid the sum which is outstanding."

The following are examples (but by no means exhaustive) of what are reasonable factors a recovery officer should take into account in exercising discretion to institute a complaint to the Magistrates court under paragraph (2) of regulation 34 of the Regulations:

1. the level of debt outstanding

2. any payments made subsequent to the full amount becoming due and time remaining of the financial year

3. are circumstances indicative of the debt being settled without resorting to enforcement

4. consider if enforcing the debt would unnecessarily subject the taxpayer to additional costs etc. and therefore amount to a penalty (see 3 above)

5. ensure monies have been prioritised to maintaining the in-year debt

6. allocate to the in-year any monies posted to arrears (or sufficient of it) that would if it had not been misallocated prevented the in-year liability also falling in arrears (see 5 above)

7. check for benefit claims or appeals already in the system and refrain from taking enforcement action where such genuine cases are unresolved

Q1. Does Woking Borough Council exercise discretion before proceeding under regulation 34(2) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 to request a summons from a justice of the peace (it may be an automated process)

Q2. If yes to (1) what factors are taken into consideration

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

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Woking Borough Council

Dear Sir/Madam,

Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Information Request.

Reference: (5183-11031668)
Subject: Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council
Tax Liability Order

Thank you for your request for information under the Freedom of
Information Act 2000.
Your request was received on 06/05/2020

Coronavirus - Covid-19 important information

As a key public sector body, we are diverting our resources to help with
challenges associated with the current public health emergency. This means
that we are not able to deal with Freedom of Information (FOI) or Subject
Access (Data Protection) requests. The position will be reviewed at the
end of May 2020.

Democratic Services (FOI Request).
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
[1]Email: [email address]
Tel: 01483 755855

Yours faithfully,

Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.

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Woking Borough Council

Dear Sir/Madam,

Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Information Request.
Our Reference (5183-11031668).

Further to your request for information dated 06/05/2020, I can confirm that your request has been dealt with as a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

You requested;
FOI Request Subject `Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order`.
FOI Request Details;
The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 (the "Regulations") confer a duty on the billing authority to exercise discretion under regulation 34(1) when deciding whether to institute a complaint to the Magistrates' court to enforce payment.

Regulation 34(1) as amended by Regulation 15 of SI 1992/3008 states, with the relevant part emphasised, as follows:

"If an amount which has fallen due under paragraph (3) or (4) of regulation 23 (including those paragraphs as applied as mentioned in regulation 28A(2)) is wholly or partly unpaid, or (in a case where a final notice is required under regulation 33) the amount stated in the final notice is wholly or partly unpaid at the expiry of the period of 7 days beginning with the day on which the notice was issued, THE BILLING AUTHORITY MAY, in accordance with paragraph (2), apply to a magistrates' court for an order against the person by whom it is payable."

Regulation 34(2) states as follows:

"The application is to be instituted by making complaint to a justice of the peace, and requesting the issue of a summons directed to that person to appear before the court to show why he has not paid the sum which is outstanding."

The following are examples (but by no means exhaustive) of what are reasonable factors a recovery officer should take into account in exercising discretion to institute a complaint to the Magistrates court under paragraph (2) of regulation 34 of the Regulations:

1. the level of debt outstanding

2. any payments made subsequent to the full amount becoming due and time remaining of the financial year

3. are circumstances indicative of the debt being settled without resorting to enforcement

4. consider if enforcing the debt would unnecessarily subject the taxpayer to additional costs etc. and therefore amount to a penalty (see 3 above)

5. ensure monies have been prioritised to maintaining the in-year debt

6. allocate to the in-year any monies posted to arrears (or sufficient of it) that would if it had not been misallocated prevented the in-year liability also falling in arrears (see 5 above)

7. check for benefit claims or appeals already in the system and refrain from taking enforcement action where such genuine cases are unresolved

Q1. Does Woking Borough Council exercise discretion before proceeding under regulation 34(2) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 to request a summons from a justice of the peace (it may be an automated process)

Q2. If yes to (1) what factors are taken into consideration

.

I confirm that the Council holds information which meets the description contained in your request and the information requested is set out below.

A.1: Yes
A.2: All 7 of the factors you have mentioned.

I hope that you are satisfied with the way in which your request for information has been dealt with. If not, the Council has decided that any complaint regarding requests for information that cannot be dealt with satisfactorily on an informal basis should be dealt with in accordance with its established complaints procedure.

Complaints.
Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
Email: [email address]

Details of the Council's complaints procedure may be found at:
https://www.woking.gov.uk/council-and-de...

Alternatively, I can forward you a paper copy of a leaflet giving details. I am also happy to discuss any queries that you may have regarding how we have dealt with your request for information. In addition, you may apply to the Information Commissioner for a decision whether your request for information has been dealt with in accordance with the requirements of the Act (although I understand that the Information Commissioner may decline to become involved if you have not first exhausted the Council's complaints procedure).

The Information Commissioner may be contacted at:
Information Commissioner's Office.
Wycliffe House,
Water Lane,
Wilmslow,
Cheshire,
SK9 5AF.
Tel: 08456 306060 or 01625 545745
Email: [email address]
Website: www.ico.org.uk

Yours faithfully,

Terry Stocks.
Revenues Team Manager,
Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
[email address]

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Dear Woking Borough Council,

Thank you for your response.

I would like a matter related to this request clarifying please.

I have obtained a template document for the council's summons for non/late payment which states on it the following:

"If an arrangement to pay is agreed, the Council will still request a liability order in Court...but there would be no need for you to attend the hearing. However, no further action would be taken on the order, unless you subsequently fail to keep to the payment arrangement. Should you elect to pay by Direct Debit the Council will usually be prepared, depending on the individual circumstances, to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period."

This implies that a customer who is prepared to switch their payment method to Direct Debit will be given favourable treatment but it is not clear in what way he will benefit. The only indication is that he will be allowed to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period, but wouldn't that be a reasonable expectation of anyone entering into a payment arrangement?

A decision would also be dependent on the individual circumstances of the customer (to allow the balance to be spread etc.) so what criteria would need to be satisfied?

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

Comments, Woking Borough Council

Good morning,

Thank you for your email. I can confirm your request for information has been forwarded to our Policy team who will reply to you direct.

Kind Regards

Customer Services

______________________________________________
Woking Borough Council, Civic Offices, Gloucester Square, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6YL
Phone: 01483 755855 | Fax: 01483 768746 | Web: www.woking.gov.uk

________________________________________
From: Helen Barker [[FOI #662384 email]]
Sent: 31 July 2020 19:30
To: Comments
Subject: Re: FOI Request Reference: (5183-11031668) Subject: Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order

Dear Woking Borough Council,

Thank you for your response.

I would like a matter related to this request clarifying please.

I have obtained a template document for the council's summons for non/late payment which states on it the following:

"If an arrangement to pay is agreed, the Council will still request a liability order in Court...but there would be no need for you to attend the hearing. However, no further action would be taken on the order, unless you subsequently fail to keep to the payment arrangement. Should you elect to pay by Direct Debit the Council will usually be prepared, depending on the individual circumstances, to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period."

This implies that a customer who is prepared to switch their payment method to Direct Debit will be given favourable treatment but it is not clear in what way he will benefit. The only indication is that he will be allowed to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period, but wouldn't that be a reasonable expectation of anyone entering into a payment arrangement?

A decision would also be dependent on the individual circumstances of the customer (to allow the balance to be spread etc.) so what criteria would need to be satisfied?

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

show quoted sections

Woking Borough Council

Dear Sir/Madam,

Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Information Request.

Reference: (5524-11374415)
Subject: Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council
Tax Liability Order

Thank you for your request for information under the Freedom of
Information Act 2000.
Your request was received on 31/07/2020

Coronavirus - Covid-19 important information

Thank you for your FOI request.

Please note your request will be responded to as soon as it is possible.
This position will be reviewed in September 2020.

Democratic Services (FOI Request).
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
[1]Email: [email address]
Tel: 01483 755855

Yours faithfully,

Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.

show quoted sections

Woking Borough Council

Dear Sir/Madam,

Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Information Request.
Our Reference (5524-11374415).

Further to your request for information dated 31/07/2020, I can confirm that your request has been dealt with as a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

You requested;
FOI Request Subject `Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order`.
FOI Request Details;
Thank you for your response.

I would like a matter related to this request clarifying please.

I have obtained a template document for the council's summons for non/late payment which states on it the following:

"If an arrangement to pay is agreed, the Council will still request a liability order in Court...but there would be no need for you to attend the hearing. However, no further action would be taken on the order, unless you subsequently fail to keep to the payment arrangement. Should you elect to pay by Direct Debit the Council will usually be prepared, depending on the individual circumstances, to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period."

This implies that a customer who is prepared to switch their payment method to Direct Debit will be given favourable treatment but it is not clear in what way he will benefit. The only indication is that he will be allowed to spread the balance over the remaining instalment period, but wouldn't that be a reasonable expectation of anyone entering into a payment arrangement?

A decision would also be dependent on the individual circumstances of the customer (to allow the balance to be spread etc.) so what criteria would need to be satisfied?

- Anybody can request their payments to be spread over instalments, what ever method they pay by. Direct Debit payers make far fewer late or missed payments so that method is encouraged.

I confirm that the Council holds information which meets the description contained in your request and the information requested is set out below.

I hope that you are satisfied with the way in which your request for information has been dealt with. If not, the Council has decided that any complaint regarding requests for information that cannot be dealt with satisfactorily on an informal basis should be dealt with in accordance with its established complaints procedure.

Complaints.
Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
Email: [email address]

Details of the Council's complaints procedure may be found at:
https://www.woking.gov.uk/council-and-de...

Alternatively, I can forward you a paper copy of a leaflet giving details. I am also happy to discuss any queries that you may have regarding how we have dealt with your request for information. In addition, you may apply to the Information Commissioner for a decision whether your request for information has been dealt with in accordance with the requirements of the Act (although I understand that the Information Commissioner may decline to become involved if you have not first exhausted the Council's complaints procedure).

The Information Commissioner may be contacted at:
Information Commissioner's Office.
Wycliffe House,
Water Lane,
Wilmslow,
Cheshire,
SK9 5AF.
Tel: 08456 306060 or 01625 545745
Email: [email address]
Website: www.ico.org.uk

Yours faithfully,

Terry Stocks.
Revenues Team Manager,
Woking Borough Council,
Civic Offices,
Gloucester Square,
Woking,
GU21 6YL.
[email address]

show quoted sections

Dear Woking Borough Council,

Thank you for clarifying your response.

Since I submitted my request a number of anomalies have come to light regarding the enforcement procedure in the area concerned. However, I do not wish to pursue this, though the council might want to reconsider its actions regarding the recovery of Council Tax in light of the issues. Note later on under the heading 'NO LEGAL BASIS TO PURSUE LIABILITY ORDER ONCE AN AMOUNT AGREED' the point discussed is not a discretionary matter. I suggest this and the other points raised are considered by the Monitoring Officer, but that is of course a matter for the council.

It does not constitute discretion if a decision of whether to apply it or not depends on being prompted by the customer, parameters being agreed in advance relating to the outstanding monetary value of a customer's account or other information that can be input so the council tax processing system can detect it when running the complaint list. Discretion could only be appropriately applied at a stage when the summons is normally requested, i.e. when all the relevant circumstances are known about the customer's account at that particular time.

Information obtained indicates that discretion is not exercised at the point where a decision is needed to be made about whether to request a summons. Discretion is applied earlier than this, after a summons has been issued but before a liability order is obtained and after a liability order has been obtained, primarily to make payment arrangements which need to be monitored after the debt is secured by a liability order. The actual process of running the complaint list and the summonses is automated for which the defendant incurs disproportionate costs.

It is apparent from information I have seen that the defendant incurs a £87.30 sum in respect of the council requesting the issue of a summons (an automated procedure). However, that sum will actually cover the council's additional expenditure in respect of sending out reminders and officer time engaging with customers who query their accounts at these points. Also the same for final notices (see below) and after a summons has been issued in respect of customers who query their accounts to arrange payment plans which are conditioned, in the case of the latter, upon the council obtaining a Liability Order (to secure the debt). The £87.30 sum is added to the accounts of all customers who have not paid the total amount outstanding of their liability, whether choosing to query their accounts or not and those who have settled their accounts before a liability order is applied for. This is to compensate the council for the officer time attributed to dealing with customers (in respect of those who contacted them) and making the application for a Liability Order (on day of the hearing).

Before the summons stage (final notice), a customer will be able to avoid summons costs, for example, a taxpayer who has lost her right to pay by instalments may have them effectively re-instated if she manages to negotiate a payment arrangement. Discretion whether to enter into a payment agreement with a taxpayer is applied again once the council has obtained a liability order (as an alternative to taking recovery action) but by that time she would have had the total £87.30 court costs added to the debt and included in the payment plan.

So the costs in reality cover the council's expenditure (additional to the issue of the summons) attributable to before the summons is requested, both after the summons is requested but before the liability order application in respect of officer time engaging with customers who agree to enter into payment agreements. The costs must therefore with absolute certainty cover the general administration of the council tax and enforcement departments.

RELEVANT LEGISLATION AND CASE LAW

I understand that the council must adhere to the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 and also be mindful of all established case law regarding the area concerned.

I am aware of a number of cases but particularly three which I would like to refer to regarding your response namely R (Nicolson) v Tottenham Magistrates [2015] EWHC 1252 (Admin); Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou [1954] 1 ALL ER 406 and Williams v East Northamptonshire [2016] EWHC 470 (Admin).

Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou [1954] 1 ALL ER 406

It is implicit in Woking's Council Tax Recovery Policy that the liability order application process is exploited as a means of encouraging a change in behaviour because of the suggestion that a customer's circumstances/ payment history can influence a decision whether or not to allow the outstanding amount to be paid by instalments when the entitlement to has been lost. Presumably a customer whose payments are usually made on time will be given favourable consideration regarding a decision to allow them to continue with instalments (potentially avoiding enforcement and costs). A decision like this in these particular cases suggests that pursuing court action would not be the proper use of discretion because the circumstances indicate that the debt would be settled without resorting to enforcement. However, in a wider sense, because of the discrimination generally between customers who are considered prompt payers and those who are not, the decision to enforce regardless of whether it is necessary in respect of the latter suggests that the enforcement process is exploited for an improper purpose, i.e. to penalise the customer with the costs of enforcement.

It is likely that the council would prefer not to have to pursue payment by the various recovery methods permitted by the liability order because it would be more convenient and cause less administration not to and in any event, the chances of the whole amount being recovered would be greater (and quicker) if Enforcement Agents acting for the Council were not first having to be paid their enforcement fees. Whether the recovery action is pursued and costs imposed hinges on how the customer engages with the council and the type of debtor the council perceives the customer to be who has defaulted on payment. Pursuing recovery in some cases but not others suggests that rather than enforcement being necessary and the most appropriate course of action in every case, the costs of the court application are exploited to act as a penalty.

The law makes no provision for one party wishing to make use of the court to do so in order to inflict a penalty on the other by way of the costs which the court may order against the defendant. The judgment in the Highgate Justices case held that costs should not exceed the proper expenditure incurred and should not be a penalty. If the council requires further powers to enforce the debt, the court's permission must first be obtained, so the costs are incurred as a consequence, rather than the purpose of the application. Local authorities which exploit the judicial procedure to act as a deterrent in a way that penalises the defendant or to act as a threat to encourage prompt payment are doing so for an improper purpose.

Williams v East Northamptonshire [2016] EWHC 470 (Admin)

The Council's website states that once a summons is sent the amount will be for both the outstanding Council Tax plus additional costs of £87.30 incurred by the issue of the summons. I am making the assumption that the costs are actually added to the customer's account at this point because it is generally the approach taken by local authorities.

I am aware that in the East Northamptonshire case, the judgment went to some lengths to clarify the position with regard to when, i.e. at what stage it was permissible for a billing authority to add summons costs to a customer's account. In essence, what the judgment determined was that it was entirely lawful for the billing authority to inform the customer by stating on the summons the amount of costs it would ask for in the event it proceeded to make the application at court for a Liability Order. Implicit in this is that it is impermissible to add to the customers account at this point the costs claimed by the billing authority because there is only any legal basis to do so once the court has granted the Liability Order. The following in paragraph 28 of the judgment bears this out:

"...I have come to the clear conclusion that the summons is not an abuse of the process or otherwise invalid by reason of the fact that it includes reference to a claim for costs. The heading of the summons makes clear it seeks recovery of the Council Tax only. The complaint is therefore only as to the non payment of the Council Tax. The tax due is the Council Tax which is separately identified both on the first page and on the subsequent page. It is abundantly clear that the subject matter of the summons is therefore the recipient’s liability for the Council Tax...."

NO LEGAL BASIS TO PURSUE LIABILITY ORDER ONCE AN AMOUNT AGREED

The Council implies that when a summons is issued, but before the Court hearing, it is possible to agree a payment arrangement but a liability order will still be pursued and the payment plan will include the £87.30 summons costs.

These costs are incurred at a point after the customer has tendered payment. Therefore, the cost attributable to this activity could not lawfully be included in the costs claimed because expenditure may only be recharged that has been incurred by the authority up to the time of the payment or tender and clearly resources called upon by engaging staff in the matter would occur after payment was tendered. Expenditure incurred by the authority after that point falls on the wrong side of line to be referable to the summons and would only be lawfully recharged (if eligible) in respect of those who had not paid or tendered to the authority the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs before the court hearing because only those customers may be proceeded against further and incur additional costs.

To be clear, it is not just the costs in these circumstances which are artificially inflated by either front loading or being charged where there is no legal basis at all which is a point of contention. The consequences are that for all those cases against whom the council proceeds in order to secure the debt once an amount has been agreed (the payment arrangement), the action is unlawful because regulation 34 of SI 1992/613 provides that the authority shall accept the amount and the application shall not be proceeded with in these circumstances.

Paragraph 34(5) of the regulations, are as follows (with emphasis):

“(5) If, after a summons has been issued in accordance with paragraph (2) but before the application is heard, there is paid or TENDERED to the authority an amount equal to the aggregate of—

(a) the sum specified in the summons as the sum outstanding or so much of it as remains outstanding (as the case may be); and

(b) a sum of an amount equal to the costs reasonably incurred by the authority in connection with the application UP TO THE TIME OF THE payment or TENDER,

the authority shall accept the amount and the application shall not be proceeded with.”

The authority could not defend its actions on the grounds that an arrangement does not constitute payment therefore it is entitled to obtain a liability order to secure the debt because the law does not say that the amount must be paid for the application not to be proceeded with, only that the amount tendered is accepted (the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs). By agreeing a payment plan which encompasses the outstanding amount and costs (costs which are properly referable to the enforcement process) the authority has accepted the amount and so there is no legal basis to proceed to obtain a liability order from the Magistrates' court.

Notwithstanding the lack of provision to proceed once the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs has been agreed by the council, even if it were permissible, these costs and any other incurred would have further criteria to meet for the court to be satisfied that they were reasonably incurred.

R (Nicolson) v Tottenham Magistrates [2015] EWHC 1252 (Admin)

The Tottenham case provides in the judgment some general guidance regarding Council Tax Liability Order court costs and give clues (paragraphs 35 and 46) as to what should not be included in the costs and an approach that might be legitimate in respect of averaging the costs.

“It is clear that there must be a sufficient link between the costs in question and the process of obtaining the liability order. It would obviously be impermissible (for example) to include in the costs claimed any element referable to the costs of executing the order after it was obtained, or to the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned.” (Paragraph 35)

"In principle, therefore, provided that the right types of costs and expenses are taken into account, and provided that due consideration is given to the dangers of double-counting, or of artificial inflation of costs, it may be a legitimate approach for a local authority to calculate and aggregate the relevant costs it has incurred in the previous year, and divide that up by the previous (or anticipated) number of summonses over twelve months so as to provide an average figure which could be levied across the board in "standard" cases.." (Paragraph 46)

However, the above does not go so far as to specify what the right types of costs and expenses are, plus the 1992 Council Tax Regulations (and associated guidance) also apply so any provisions in those capable of establishing what are "relevant costs" need taking into account. Crucially, the possibility that the approach of averaging the costs is conditional upon the right types of costs and expenses being taken into account and being mindful of the dangers of artificially inflating the costs.

Government guidance from 1993 and 2013 both provide within them that "the Court may wish to be satisfied that the amount claimed by way of costs in any individual case is no more than that reasonably incurred by the authority". They do so because the court is obliged to hear individually anyone wishing to raise a defence and regulation 35(1) of the Regulations provides that a single liability order may deal with one person and one amount.

The streamlining of the process, i.e. by hearing cases of all the defendants in a bulk application who decline the invitation to defend themselves would if the law was properly applied be met with a forfeiture of costs income because only expenditure which is common to every defendant may lawfully be included in a standard sum. For example, even if expenditure attributable to engaging with customers agreeing payment arrangements was not impermissible for the reasons discussed, they would not otherwise be deemed "relevant costs" to be included in the calculation because the expenditure is not common to every defendant but also because it would be impermissible to include in the costs any element referable to the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned (para 35, Tottenham judgment).

Looking now just at general expenditure incurred in dealing with customer's queries in the context that all the £87.30 costs are applied on issue of the summons so that the same sum is incurred by customers whether or not their cases proceed to court. For those customers whose cases do not proceed, their costs are artificially inflated because the amount they're charged requires to be a lesser sum than the £87.30 total claimed to have been incurred by the council to obtain the order which is referable to regulation 34(7). The costs claims in connection with issuing the summons, which are relevant for these customers, are provided in regulation 34(5). The Tottenham judgment reinforces this in para 46, warning that a standard sum would require the right types of expenses being taken into account with due consideration given to the dangers of double-counting, or of artificial inflation and in para 50 saying that "what matters is that the costs that it does decide to claim are properly referable to the enforcement process". So, even if the work was not referable to the overall administration of council tax (which arguably it is) and considered referable to 'the right types of costs and expenses', the expenditure attributable to dealing with those customer's queries who subsequently pay to the authority the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs before the court hearing would have paid an element of front loaded costs, i.e. which were not properly referable to the enforcement process.

There is also the anomaly that the customers who to the greatest degree drive the level of activity are ironically avoiding the recovery process and not incurring any costs. These are generally those customers who have negotiated their instalments being re-instated, whilst customers who settle their debt without causing additional work are left subsidising this expenditure when bizarrely none is incurred in connection with their summonses.

Expanding further on the concept of "reasonably incurred". If the costs are to be recharged lawfully to the customer it must have been reasonable for the council to have incurred them. Any expenditure recharged to the customer in respect of costs has not been reasonably incurred which is attributable to activity carried out by the council above what is necessary to secure the court order. Obtaining the order is merely a formality and it functions simply as the vehicle empowering the council to make use of a range of enforcement measures to pursue monies owed should it be necessary once it is in place, so with that in mind and that applications are made en masse, then the vast majority of costs typically claimed by local authorities are not necessary in a process which amounts to no more than seeking permission from the court.

Expenditure attributable to work carried out, which is clearly by its nature referable to the overall administration (in the area of council tax concerned) would not by virtue of it coinciding with when the complaint is in progress be sufficient to link it to the actual process of obtaining the liability order. This is separable from any that is permissible to be included in the costs claimed and would need omitting from the calculation because it would not be reasonable to expect those paying them to subsidise general administration or to be exploited as a means of funding revenues/recovery staff - and - because it is not common to every defendant.

It is generally accepted by billing authorities that defences against the issue of a Liability Order at the court hearing which are considered to be valid are restricted to no more than a handful. However, there are eight obvious additional defences that would be valid if no discretion is exercised prior to requesting the issue of a summons, expenditure incurred by the council outside the process of applying for and obtaining a liability order is included in those costs and a decision to charge costs can depend on whether or not the council wants them to act as a penalty. They would be that;

1. the billing authority has not (does not) comply with regulation 34(1) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992;

2. expenditure amounting to £87.30 was not incurred by the council in respect of instituting the complaint;

3. the costs have been inflated to subsidise customers who opt to make payment in line with the pre-arranged payment plans;

4. the costs in respect of instituting the summons include expenditure which is incurred by the council after that action;

5. decisions whether to enforce (and impose costs) which hinge on the type of debtor the council perceives the customer to be who has defaulted on payment is evidence that the enforcement process is exploited for an improper purpose, i.e. to encourage behaviour (a penalty), see Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou;

6. the costs have been inflated to subsidise expenditure incurred by the council in respect of potential applications to the court but which are not made by virtue of negotiations that have taken place to reinstate instalments;

7. the costs in general have been inflated to subsidise expenditure incurred by the council in respect of officer time monitoring arrangements and/or engaging with customers after the process of applying for and obtaining the liability order has ended; and

8. the costs in general have been inflated to fund the running of the council tax and enforcement departments and/or the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned.

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

Comments, Woking Borough Council

Thank you for your request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Your request was received on 7th September 2020.

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Customer Services

______________________________________________
Woking Borough Council, Civic Offices, Gloucester Square, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6YL
Phone: 01483 755855 | Fax: 01483 768746 | Web: www.woking.gov.uk

________________________________________
From: Helen Barker [[FOI #662384 email]]
Sent: 06 September 2020 08:45
To: Comments
Subject: Re: FOI Request Reference: (5524-11374415) Subject: Exercising discretion when applying to the court for a Council Tax Liability Order

Dear Woking Borough Council,

Thank you for clarifying your response.

Since I submitted my request a number of anomalies have come to light regarding the enforcement procedure in the area concerned. However, I do not wish to pursue this, though the council might want to reconsider its actions regarding the recovery of Council Tax in light of the issues. Note later on under the heading 'NO LEGAL BASIS TO PURSUE LIABILITY ORDER ONCE AN AMOUNT AGREED' the point discussed is not a discretionary matter. I suggest this and the other points raised are considered by the Monitoring Officer, but that is of course a matter for the council.

It does not constitute discretion if a decision of whether to apply it or not depends on being prompted by the customer, parameters being agreed in advance relating to the outstanding monetary value of a customer's account or other information that can be input so the council tax processing system can detect it when running the complaint list. Discretion could only be appropriately applied at a stage when the summons is normally requested, i.e. when all the relevant circumstances are known about the customer's account at that particular time.

Information obtained indicates that discretion is not exercised at the point where a decision is needed to be made about whether to request a summons. Discretion is applied earlier than this, after a summons has been issued but before a liability order is obtained and after a liability order has been obtained, primarily to make payment arrangements which need to be monitored after the debt is secured by a liability order. The actual process of running the complaint list and the summonses is automated for which the defendant incurs disproportionate costs.

It is apparent from information I have seen that the defendant incurs a £87.30 sum in respect of the council requesting the issue of a summons (an automated procedure). However, that sum will actually cover the council's additional expenditure in respect of sending out reminders and officer time engaging with customers who query their accounts at these points. Also the same for final notices (see below) and after a summons has been issued in respect of customers who query their accounts to arrange payment plans which are conditioned, in the case of the latter, upon the council obtaining a Liability Order (to secure the debt). The £87.30 sum is added to the accounts of all customers who have not paid the total amount outstanding of their liability, whether choosing to query their accounts or not and those who have settled their accounts before a liability order is applied for. This is to compensate the council for the officer time attributed to dealing with customers (in respect of those who contacted them) and making the application for a Liability Order (on day of the hearing).

Before the summons stage (final notice), a customer will be able to avoid summons costs, for example, a taxpayer who has lost her right to pay by instalments may have them effectively re-instated if she manages to negotiate a payment arrangement. Discretion whether to enter into a payment agreement with a taxpayer is applied again once the council has obtained a liability order (as an alternative to taking recovery action) but by that time she would have had the total £87.30 court costs added to the debt and included in the payment plan.

So the costs in reality cover the council's expenditure (additional to the issue of the summons) attributable to before the summons is requested, both after the summons is requested but before the liability order application in respect of officer time engaging with customers who agree to enter into payment agreements. The costs must therefore with absolute certainty cover the general administration of the council tax and enforcement departments.

RELEVANT LEGISLATION AND CASE LAW

I understand that the council must adhere to the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 and also be mindful of all established case law regarding the area concerned.

I am aware of a number of cases but particularly three which I would like to refer to regarding your response namely R (Nicolson) v Tottenham Magistrates [2015] EWHC 1252 (Admin); Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou [1954] 1 ALL ER 406 and Williams v East Northamptonshire [2016] EWHC 470 (Admin).

Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou [1954] 1 ALL ER 406

It is implicit in Woking's Council Tax Recovery Policy that the liability order application process is exploited as a means of encouraging a change in behaviour because of the suggestion that a customer's circumstances/ payment history can influence a decision whether or not to allow the outstanding amount to be paid by instalments when the entitlement to has been lost. Presumably a customer whose payments are usually made on time will be given favourable consideration regarding a decision to allow them to continue with instalments (potentially avoiding enforcement and costs). A decision like this in these particular cases suggests that pursuing court action would not be the proper use of discretion because the circumstances indicate that the debt would be settled without resorting to enforcement. However, in a wider sense, because of the discrimination generally between customers who are considered prompt payers and those who are not, the decision to enforce regardless of whether it is necessary in respect of the latter suggests that the enforcement process is exploited for an improper purpose, i.e. to penalise the customer with the costs of enforcement.

It is likely that the council would prefer not to have to pursue payment by the various recovery methods permitted by the liability order because it would be more convenient and cause less administration not to and in any event, the chances of the whole amount being recovered would be greater (and quicker) if Enforcement Agents acting for the Council were not first having to be paid their enforcement fees. Whether the recovery action is pursued and costs imposed hinges on how the customer engages with the council and the type of debtor the council perceives the customer to be who has defaulted on payment. Pursuing recovery in some cases but not others suggests that rather than enforcement being necessary and the most appropriate course of action in every case, the costs of the court application are exploited to act as a penalty.

The law makes no provision for one party wishing to make use of the court to do so in order to inflict a penalty on the other by way of the costs which the court may order against the defendant. The judgment in the Highgate Justices case held that costs should not exceed the proper expenditure incurred and should not be a penalty. If the council requires further powers to enforce the debt, the court's permission must first be obtained, so the costs are incurred as a consequence, rather than the purpose of the application. Local authorities which exploit the judicial procedure to act as a deterrent in a way that penalises the defendant or to act as a threat to encourage prompt payment are doing so for an improper purpose.

Williams v East Northamptonshire [2016] EWHC 470 (Admin)

The Council's website states that once a summons is sent the amount will be for both the outstanding Council Tax plus additional costs of £87.30 incurred by the issue of the summons. I am making the assumption that the costs are actually added to the customer's account at this point because it is generally the approach taken by local authorities.

I am aware that in the East Northamptonshire case, the judgment went to some lengths to clarify the position with regard to when, i.e. at what stage it was permissible for a billing authority to add summons costs to a customer's account. In essence, what the judgment determined was that it was entirely lawful for the billing authority to inform the customer by stating on the summons the amount of costs it would ask for in the event it proceeded to make the application at court for a Liability Order. Implicit in this is that it is impermissible to add to the customers account at this point the costs claimed by the billing authority because there is only any legal basis to do so once the court has granted the Liability Order. The following in paragraph 28 of the judgment bears this out:

"...I have come to the clear conclusion that the summons is not an abuse of the process or otherwise invalid by reason of the fact that it includes reference to a claim for costs. The heading of the summons makes clear it seeks recovery of the Council Tax only. The complaint is therefore only as to the non payment of the Council Tax. The tax due is the Council Tax which is separately identified both on the first page and on the subsequent page. It is abundantly clear that the subject matter of the summons is therefore the recipient’s liability for the Council Tax...."

NO LEGAL BASIS TO PURSUE LIABILITY ORDER ONCE AN AMOUNT AGREED

The Council implies that when a summons is issued, but before the Court hearing, it is possible to agree a payment arrangement but a liability order will still be pursued and the payment plan will include the £87.30 summons costs.

These costs are incurred at a point after the customer has tendered payment. Therefore, the cost attributable to this activity could not lawfully be included in the costs claimed because expenditure may only be recharged that has been incurred by the authority up to the time of the payment or tender and clearly resources called upon by engaging staff in the matter would occur after payment was tendered. Expenditure incurred by the authority after that point falls on the wrong side of line to be referable to the summons and would only be lawfully recharged (if eligible) in respect of those who had not paid or tendered to the authority the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs before the court hearing because only those customers may be proceeded against further and incur additional costs.

To be clear, it is not just the costs in these circumstances which are artificially inflated by either front loading or being charged where there is no legal basis at all which is a point of contention. The consequences are that for all those cases against whom the council proceeds in order to secure the debt once an amount has been agreed (the payment arrangement), the action is unlawful because regulation 34 of SI 1992/613 provides that the authority shall accept the amount and the application shall not be proceeded with in these circumstances.

Paragraph 34(5) of the regulations, are as follows (with emphasis):

“(5) If, after a summons has been issued in accordance with paragraph (2) but before the application is heard, there is paid or TENDERED to the authority an amount equal to the aggregate of—

(a) the sum specified in the summons as the sum outstanding or so much of it as remains outstanding (as the case may be); and

(b) a sum of an amount equal to the costs reasonably incurred by the authority in connection with the application UP TO THE TIME OF THE payment or TENDER,

the authority shall accept the amount and the application shall not be proceeded with.”

The authority could not defend its actions on the grounds that an arrangement does not constitute payment therefore it is entitled to obtain a liability order to secure the debt because the law does not say that the amount must be paid for the application not to be proceeded with, only that the amount tendered is accepted (the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs). By agreeing a payment plan which encompasses the outstanding amount and costs (costs which are properly referable to the enforcement process) the authority has accepted the amount and so there is no legal basis to proceed to obtain a liability order from the Magistrates' court.

Notwithstanding the lack of provision to proceed once the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs has been agreed by the council, even if it were permissible, these costs and any other incurred would have further criteria to meet for the court to be satisfied that they were reasonably incurred.

R (Nicolson) v Tottenham Magistrates [2015] EWHC 1252 (Admin)

The Tottenham case provides in the judgment some general guidance regarding Council Tax Liability Order court costs and give clues (paragraphs 35 and 46) as to what should not be included in the costs and an approach that might be legitimate in respect of averaging the costs.

“It is clear that there must be a sufficient link between the costs in question and the process of obtaining the liability order. It would obviously be impermissible (for example) to include in the costs claimed any element referable to the costs of executing the order after it was obtained, or to the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned.” (Paragraph 35)

"In principle, therefore, provided that the right types of costs and expenses are taken into account, and provided that due consideration is given to the dangers of double-counting, or of artificial inflation of costs, it may be a legitimate approach for a local authority to calculate and aggregate the relevant costs it has incurred in the previous year, and divide that up by the previous (or anticipated) number of summonses over twelve months so as to provide an average figure which could be levied across the board in "standard" cases.." (Paragraph 46)

However, the above does not go so far as to specify what the right types of costs and expenses are, plus the 1992 Council Tax Regulations (and associated guidance) also apply so any provisions in those capable of establishing what are "relevant costs" need taking into account. Crucially, the possibility that the approach of averaging the costs is conditional upon the right types of costs and expenses being taken into account and being mindful of the dangers of artificially inflating the costs.

Government guidance from 1993 and 2013 both provide within them that "the Court may wish to be satisfied that the amount claimed by way of costs in any individual case is no more than that reasonably incurred by the authority". They do so because the court is obliged to hear individually anyone wishing to raise a defence and regulation 35(1) of the Regulations provides that a single liability order may deal with one person and one amount.

The streamlining of the process, i.e. by hearing cases of all the defendants in a bulk application who decline the invitation to defend themselves would if the law was properly applied be met with a forfeiture of costs income because only expenditure which is common to every defendant may lawfully be included in a standard sum. For example, even if expenditure attributable to engaging with customers agreeing payment arrangements was not impermissible for the reasons discussed, they would not otherwise be deemed "relevant costs" to be included in the calculation because the expenditure is not common to every defendant but also because it would be impermissible to include in the costs any element referable to the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned (para 35, Tottenham judgment).

Looking now just at general expenditure incurred in dealing with customer's queries in the context that all the £87.30 costs are applied on issue of the summons so that the same sum is incurred by customers whether or not their cases proceed to court. For those customers whose cases do not proceed, their costs are artificially inflated because the amount they're charged requires to be a lesser sum than the £87.30 total claimed to have been incurred by the council to obtain the order which is referable to regulation 34(7). The costs claims in connection with issuing the summons, which are relevant for these customers, are provided in regulation 34(5). The Tottenham judgment reinforces this in para 46, warning that a standard sum would require the right types of expenses being taken into account with due consideration given to the dangers of double-counting, or of artificial inflation and in para 50 saying that "what matters is that the costs that it does decide to claim are properly referable to the enforcement process". So, even if the work was not referable to the overall administration of council tax (which arguably it is) and considered referable to 'the right types of costs and expenses', the expenditure attributable to dealing with those customer's queries who subsequently pay to the authority the aggregate of the outstanding amount and costs before the court hearing would have paid an element of front loaded costs, i.e. which were not properly referable to the enforcement process.

There is also the anomaly that the customers who to the greatest degree drive the level of activity are ironically avoiding the recovery process and not incurring any costs. These are generally those customers who have negotiated their instalments being re-instated, whilst customers who settle their debt without causing additional work are left subsidising this expenditure when bizarrely none is incurred in connection with their summonses.

Expanding further on the concept of "reasonably incurred". If the costs are to be recharged lawfully to the customer it must have been reasonable for the council to have incurred them. Any expenditure recharged to the customer in respect of costs has not been reasonably incurred which is attributable to activity carried out by the council above what is necessary to secure the court order. Obtaining the order is merely a formality and it functions simply as the vehicle empowering the council to make use of a range of enforcement measures to pursue monies owed should it be necessary once it is in place, so with that in mind and that applications are made en masse, then the vast majority of costs typically claimed by local authorities are not necessary in a process which amounts to no more than seeking permission from the court.

Expenditure attributable to work carried out, which is clearly by its nature referable to the overall administration (in the area of council tax concerned) would not by virtue of it coinciding with when the complaint is in progress be sufficient to link it to the actual process of obtaining the liability order. This is separable from any that is permissible to be included in the costs claimed and would need omitting from the calculation because it would not be reasonable to expect those paying them to subsidise general administration or to be exploited as a means of funding revenues/recovery staff - and - because it is not common to every defendant.

It is generally accepted by billing authorities that defences against the issue of a Liability Order at the court hearing which are considered to be valid are restricted to no more than a handful. However, there are eight obvious additional defences that would be valid if no discretion is exercised prior to requesting the issue of a summons, expenditure incurred by the council outside the process of applying for and obtaining a liability order is included in those costs and a decision to charge costs can depend on whether or not the council wants them to act as a penalty. They would be that;

1. the billing authority has not (does not) comply with regulation 34(1) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992;

2. expenditure amounting to £87.30 was not incurred by the council in respect of instituting the complaint;

3. the costs have been inflated to subsidise customers who opt to make payment in line with the pre-arranged payment plans;

4. the costs in respect of instituting the summons include expenditure which is incurred by the council after that action;

5. decisions whether to enforce (and impose costs) which hinge on the type of debtor the council perceives the customer to be who has defaulted on payment is evidence that the enforcement process is exploited for an improper purpose, i.e. to encourage behaviour (a penalty), see Regina v Highgate Justices ex parte Petrou;

6. the costs have been inflated to subsidise expenditure incurred by the council in respect of potential applications to the court but which are not made by virtue of negotiations that have taken place to reinstate instalments;

7. the costs in general have been inflated to subsidise expenditure incurred by the council in respect of officer time monitoring arrangements and/or engaging with customers after the process of applying for and obtaining the liability order has ended; and

8. the costs in general have been inflated to fund the running of the council tax and enforcement departments and/or the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned.

Yours faithfully,

Helen Barker

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