What was the problem?
In 2018 we kept finding that many of our clients faced stressful court action as soon as they fell behind with their monthly payments of Council Tax and some were unfairly subjected to enforcement by bailiffs. This was particularly a problem for our clients could not use the internet or understand complex correspondence or had severe mental health problems and were unable to deal with their debts consistently without constant support.
What have we done to help?
We reviewed our clients’ experience of the Council’s standard procedure for collecting Council Tax arrears and asked for a meeting with the head of the Council Tax department to establish a closer working relationship with the Council to improve the operation of its procedure for recovering Council Tax arrears from our clients. Nationally Citizens Advice had agreed with the Local Government Association a Good Practice Protocol to improve local authorities’ procedures for collecting Council Tax arrears, particularly from vulnerable residents, and several London Councils had signed up to it. We urged Richmond Council to do the same.
Towards the end of 2018 the head of the Council Tax department responded, refusing to discuss the Good Practice Protocol but offering a three month pilot to test the value of a procedure to enable serious unresolved problems with our clients’ CT arrears to be raised with designated senior managers. We met the head of the Council Tax department and his team to discuss the details of this procedure. It was agreed that where our advisers could show that our clients were vulnerable and we were helping them to deal with their Council Tax arrears the senior managers could stop court action or enforcement by bailiffs to allow time for an affordable repayment plan to be agreed.
This pilot procedure was launched in April 2019. We collected evidence on the operation of the procedure and met the Council staff again later in the summer to review progress. We found that Council staff were now dealing with our clients more sensitively so that few cases had to be referred to the designated senior managers. When we did refer cases, court action was almost always stopped promptly or cases were taken back from the bailiffs and affordable repayment plans agreed quickly. The Council agreed that the pilot had been successful and has now adopted this procedure as a permanent part of its system for dealing with Council Tax arrears. There remain some difficulties in ensuring that bailiffs stop enforcement proceedings promptly when the Council resumes control of the debt, so that we are continuing to monitor our clients’ experience to press for improvement in this aspect of the procedure; but overall we believe that our collaboration with the Council has reduced the stress of dealing with Council Tax arrears for our most vulnerable clients.