Rossendale Borough Council paying for services out of court costs!
Council tax liability orders are being enforced on late/non council tax payers every year, all over England. Rossendale Borough Council (RBC), estimate to issue 6072 summons in 2016/2017 alone.
Each liability order summons, comes with a £95 court costs charge.
If all these charges are collected, this will result in a total amount of £576,840 being paid to Rossendale Borough Council.
So how are these court costs arrived at?
RBC block book the magistrates' court in Burnley and they pass through as many as they can each block booking day.
To prove their costs are legitimate, the council present the Clerk of Justice with a run down of the running costs for recovery of unpaid council tax.
Here's the breakdown of costs they presented to Burnley magistrates' court;
- System administration costs £23,741
- Recovery section £215,082
- Billing and benefits teams £49,652
- Contact centre costs £82,425
- Customer services £26,729
- Accountancy and service assurance team £7,648
- Northgate licensing and maintenance £67,567
- System administration costs £3,960
- Telephone system £4,567
- Anite system £3,000
Printing and postage costs:
- Stationary costs £84,825
- Production of pre-summons reports, complaint reports and liability order reports £23,741
Magistrates court costs:
- Administration and payment of invoices £435
- Court fees (based on estimated 6072 cases) £18,216
- Cash receipting payments £415
Total recovery costs: £612,010
Esimated summons number based on previous years: 6072
Total per case: £100
Our council tax for the year 2016/17 was paid in full by February 2017.
I appeared in court to defend against the £95 court costs charge, here's what happened.
Rossendale borough council's representative, admitted under oath the following to the magistrate;
* The cost of my liability order going through the magistrates court was just £3.
* Regulation of 34 of the Council Tax (Administration & Enforcement) Regulations 1992) allows for costs to be charged (if reasonably incurred by the applicant in obtaining THE order). The council submitted this as a note with their list of costs on application.
RBC's officer admitted that the costs list presented to the court represented the council's costs for all of their recovery of council tax (paid on time/late/non payment) - the legislation the court uses, permits only costs to be awarded in "Obtaining the order" and not for the entire recovery process or any individual part of it.
* RBC's officer admitted that the council did not have a breakdown of costs for my case to present to the court. Therefore RBC could not prove that "costs were reasonable and genuine" as they must do, to furnish the magistrate with the facts to discharge their duty.
* The costs list submitted by the council, were an audit for the financial year 2015/16, over a year out of date. The officer did not know of any new procedures or reduced costs that had been made between the time the audit was done and the present day.
This shows that the council's costs list could not be taken by the magistrates to be accurate?
* RBC's officer accepted under oath, that in our case, we had not used several of the departments listed on the costs list, at any point in time over the last financial year.
* RBC's officer admitted under oath, that those department and systems being claimed for on the council's court costs sheet, were in fact not just for the collection of all (let alone recovery from late/non payers) of council tax in a financial year, but also for collection of business rates, rents, non domestic rates, etc.
* RBC's officer admitted that there was "double accounting" in the council's court costs submitted to the magistrate, as every council tax payer was paying for the council's departments/call centres/systems/maintenance contracts/licenses, etc. at the same time as the council were claiming all of the estimated 6072 liability order applications incurring court costs through the magistrates court, were legitimately being claimed for.
* RBC's officer admitted that the council's court costs claim submitted for costs under regulation 34(7) where council tax and costs were outstanding, did not apply in my case, as all council tax had been paid before the court date, so regulation 34(8) was applicable.
* RBC's officer admitted under oath that there were some of the estimated 6072 cases being charged court costs by the council, that have/would have the court costs waived. The officer couldn't instruct the court regarding how many of these
* RBC's officer admitted under oath, that court costs were waived for some cases where there were amounts owed for council tax, where the accounts fell under those people with "low incomes" but he could not tell the court how many cases this would be applicable to.
* RBC's officer had put in writing and admitted under oath, that part of the court costs were set to penalise late/non payers of council tax, to deter people from late/non payment of council tax.
- The magistrate did not want to see this written evidence (from RBC's recovery officer)
- I quoted the case of judicial review (therefore legal precedent), R v Highgate Justices 1954, whereby it was ruled that "Court costs should not exceed the proper costs incurred and should not be a penalty"
* RBC's officer did not know how many liability orders were charged the £95 costs by the council, where the costs were not challenged by the individual account holder and no review was presented before the court, as listed in the council's court costs submittance to the court.
The magistrates' court secretary, quoted from a book of laws, along with the footnotes for guidance, to be used in this case.
Both RBC's officer and myself were sent out of court to study these prior to making representations before the judge.
In these footnotes, the case of R (on the application of the Reverend Nicholson) v Tottenham Magistrates  and the findings and observations of Judge Andrews J are summarised for guidance for the court;
"For the court to be satisfied that the costs were reasonably incurred, it is insufficient for the court to rely on general and vague assertions with no supporting particulars. The focus must not be on whether the costs claimed was a reasonable amount, but whether those costs were reasonably incurred obtaining the liability order.
It will be impermissible to include in the costs claimed, to the overall administration of council tax in the area concerned."
The footnotes also quote from the case of (R v Bristol City Magistrates Court, ex p Willsman (1991))
"Regulation 34(7) [which RBC were claiming costs for] means that the court must be satisfied;
(i) The Local Authority has actually incurred those costs;
(ii) that the costs in question were incurred in obtaining the liability order;
"Local Authorities are reminded that they are only permitted to charge reasonable costs for the court summons and liability order.
In the interests of transparency, Local Authorities should be able to provide a breakdown, on request, showing how these costs are calculated.
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."
After all the admissions under oath by Rossendale Borough Council's officer, I hoped the magistrate would take them into account. They did not.
In summing up, the Judge informed me that the court's hands were tied on this issue, there was little room for manouvre for them.
We all have a responsibility to pay our council tax and on time, while we sympathise with your case, I find in favour of the claimant.
So after completely discrediting the council's costs argument, the lack of factual basis for their submissions and quoting legal precedent, about court costs not to be used as a penalty, the Judge preferred instead to ignore all that and agree with RBC's officer that "we haven't raised court cost levels for four years and it would be too expensive to produce and individual case breakdown for the court"
(Even though they claimed in their costs submission that part of the court costs they were claiming was for liability order reports and case by case reviews to present before the court!)
Where do I go from here?
I have no idea.
It cannot be right that court costs being claimed by Rossendale Borough Council are paying for departments/systems/administration for not only council tax, but rents, non domestic rates, etc. The same departments that are also paid for from the council's normal budget funded via everyones' council tax bills.
Regulation 34 (and all paragraphs thereof) at no point state that a council is allowed to claim costs for "recovery" of late/non paid council tax, it does however state that costs must reflect the cost of obtaining THE liability order, not for all of the 6072 estimated to be needed in a given year.
The Magistrates court system is there to give a fair hearing to everybody.
It should not take a judicial review and thousands of pounds in costs to get a fair hearing.
This is happening all over England, what are your councillors, MPs doing about it?
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