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Family received threat of court action over £1 tax arrears

By Somerset Guardian  |  Posted: October 04, 2012

Kim and Colin MacGuire with their son Henry and outstanding £1

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A Westfield family has accused Bath and North East Somerset Council of causing unnecessary stress and wasting taxpayers' money after they were sent two threatening letters on the same day over a £1 council tax error.

The letters – which cost 20p more in postage than the family owed – were received by Colin and Kim MacGuire, of Elm Terrace, last Thursday telling them they needed to pay the council £120 or face being taken to court.

Mrs MacGuire, who works at Bath's Royal United Hospital, said she came home from work to find the two red debt letters addressed separately to herself and her husband.

She said: "I spent the whole night worrying about it. I always pay the bill at The Hollies council offices in Midsomer Norton at the start of each month and initially assumed there had been a mistake.

"I printed off the last six months' worth of bank statements to see what the problem was and checked I had paid each month."

When Mrs MacGuire called the council she was told by a B&NES call centre operator that the problem had arisen from the fact she had mistakenly made out a cheque for £118 instead of the usual £119 when she paid the August instalment.

She said: "When he told me I couldn't stop laughing. £1 – it is less than the cost of sending the two letters.

"It was an honest mistake. Why use such threats against people? And why not explain what it is all about in the letter? The letter doesn't even say which month we owed it for.

"There are people who owe thousands of pounds yet they chase us over a quid."

Mrs MacGuire said the call centre operator claimed the council had sent out similar letters a month earlier but she denies receiving them.

She added: "If I had received it I would have been straight on the phone as I was this time when the letters arrived. I even paid my bill a few days after they claim they sent the letter and no one said there was a problem."

Mr MacGuire, who works nights at Bristol Fruit Market, said he was "absolutely fuming" over the experience which he said made the couple feel like criminals.

The MacGuires, who have three children, aged 14, 11 and six, said they wanted to make other people aware of what they had been through to stop them panicking if they receive a similar letter.

Mrs MacGuire, who paid the £1 when she paid her usual £119 at the start of October, said: "It worries me that other people, particularly anyone who is older, would have been terrified to receive a letter like that. It must happen to so many people.

"After all, we did not owe the council £120, we owed them just £1. I bet they would not have been so forthcoming if it was the other way round and they owed us £1."

A spokesman for B&NES said the letter makes it clear that the amount stated also includes any money that is owed to the council within the next seven days, and since the next tax instalment was due that week the £119 usual payment was included as well as the £1 outstanding.

He also said that when a couple hold a joint council tax account it is not unusual for notices to be issued to both account holders.

He added: "Mr and Mrs MacGuire were sent a reminder notice on August 28 for £120. This amount covered the £1 underpayment for August's instalment, paid on August 3, and, as clearly stated on the reminder, any instalment becoming due within seven days – in this case £119 due on September 1.

"The September instalment was paid on September 3, but not the £1 underpayment. We sent a second reminder on September 25 for £120, £1 arrears plus the forthcoming instalment.

"The council is required by the Government to include in reminder letters any instalment due within seven days."

He added that B&NES issues 20,000 such letters to council taxpayers across the district each year and uses the same letter template regardless of the amount due.

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  • ker_ching  |  October 12 2012, 3:04PM

    You need to keep a keen eye out for these council's shenanigans: http://tinyurl.com/9yfly8u • The council sent out at least 3,359 summonses containing out of date information relating to costs for obtaining a liability order. • The council had informed the Magistrates' court by letter of its intention to increase summons costs and that there were no longer costs of £25 for a liability order. Neither the council nor Magistrates' court noticed thousands of documents containing errors; this raises serious concerns and brings into question whether there is any monitoring of liability order applications. • It would follow that all 3,359 of these summonses would be void, and any court costs and enforcement fees imposed as a result of the flawed documents would have been incurred unlawfully It is glaringly obvious that neither the council's court enforcement manager nor the Magistrates courts' legal adviser have paid any attention to over 3,000 summonses issued. • A decision by magistrates whether to issue a summons pursuant to information laid is not merely administrative and should involve the exercise of a judicial function. If the Council notified the Court in writing of the increase in costs, it would also have notified them that there were no longer costs of £25 added when the liability order was obtained. However, this had not prevented more than 3,000 of these defective summonses being sent out unnoticed to residents, stating that the council would apply for further costs of £25 if a liability order was granted. There clearly then, exists in these liability order applications, at least a dereliction of duty, if not a serious case of maladministration when complaints made to the Magistrates' court, in the first instance have not been checked by the council and secondly, the cases had not been reviewed by the courts' legal adviser.

  • siarad2  |  October 11 2012, 8:05PM

    These are nice little earners for councils who are there, NOT as rulers but employees, to aid the population. Some years ago my next door neighbour had a bill for £0.00, yes nothing! He went to the payment office & with some difficulty paid a cheque for nothing & got a receipt so worried was he of further action.

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  • over_2_you  |  October 11 2012, 1:24PM

    Local authorities have a problem with common sense where council tax recovery is concerned. I should say the following data is typical of all councils. But this is a clear indication that automation is not always a good thing. These are figures relating to the number of householders North East Lincolnshire council took to court over a 5 year period. Post #62 of this thread has more detail. http://tinyurl.com/6v4pdtw • 1,387 Liability Orders issued for outstanding debt of less than £25 • 981 for less than £20 • 544 " " " £15 • 82 " " " £10 • 45 " " " £5 • 12 " " " £1 3 Liability Orders issued for debt of only 1p

  • alberts_quare  |  October 11 2012, 9:47AM

    "A spokesman for B&NES added that B&NES issues 20,000 such letters to council taxpayers across the district each year and uses the same letter template regardless of the amount due." For 2010-11 Number of Reminders Issued 20,375 Number Summonses Issued 10,625 Number of Liability Orders Granted 4,288 Summonses cost the householder £55 in court costs. Liability Orders £10 £627,255 extra revenue for taking householders to court is why they're so keen with this action.

  • alberts_quare  |  October 11 2012, 9:27AM

    "After all, we did not owe the council £120, we owed them just £1. I bet they would not have been so forthcoming if it was the other way round and they owed us £1." Surprisingly they might have still carried out this recovery action if you had overpaid by just 1 penny. Like many local authorities, Bath and North East Somerset Council use a software package called "Northgate" for administration of Council Tax. Because the system is automated it relies on the correct amounts being inputted to the accounting system. If the exact amount corresponding to the instalment is not registered by the computer, it is likely to go into confusion and recovery action automatically triggered. A local authority using the same "Northgate" software package had an internal review of some problem encountered with council tax payments. This paragraph is taken from the report: "The council tax system has built in allocation rules to ensure that the law with respect to specified payments is met. For instance, if a customer has a payment plan for any year of debt and the payment they make matches the planned instalment then the money will be allocated to that year (this is known as "hard" allocation on the council tax system). If the system is unable to "hard allocate" then it will instead "soft" allocate and the debt will be used against the oldest debt unless manually adjusted."