By Alan Murdie, LL.B, Barrister editor The Council Tax Handbook
One hears a lot about complaints of ‘bad service’ and ‘no service’ in the consumer sphere. Polite complaints to the company concerned and consumer protection laws about the sale of faulty goods or services can often resolve many of these successfully.
But when you don’t get served with key legal documents in council tax cases, it is very serious and needs a legal response.
Knowing about the case against you is crucial to getting justice. The defendant or debtor must know about a case against him/her and at least have an opportunity of attending.
Failing to receive documents has been a problem recognised for centuries in civil law, but only in the last ten years has been appreciated as an issue with council tax.
If a person isn’t served it can turn proceedings into a game of ‘snakes and ladders’.
Not receiving the summons
The summons is a notice to get you into court which you have to be sent before you can have a liability order made against you.
The best advice if you are summonsed for council tax is always turn up. Cases often get settled or adjourned – even dismissed.
Unfortunately, summonses don’t always arrive. Bad administration can occur, documents go astray or get lost in the post. And, of course, you may have moved and documents go to your old address.
If they are sent electronically, they may disappear in cyberspace or in a spam or junk folder on the computer (the unreliability of IT at many civil courts makes many lawyers fear the day proceedings go on-line).
What if I don’t get the summons?
If you did not attend the original hearing it is possible to get a liability order set aside, although the rules on this have never been properly organised.
If you never received the summons to court then you have a right to have the proceeding set aside.
If you suddenly learn that you have a liability order – the key thing is act promptly.
Don’t delay – in this case ‘promptly’ means within three weeks of finding out (e.g. after a note from the bailiffs).
Get in touch with the magistrates’ court which issued your liability order. Submit a letter seeking it to be set aside. This should be addressed to the ‘Clerk of Justices’ or ‘The Justices’ Chief Executive’.
Don’t be put off by the Council or bailiffs – or even someone answering the telephone at the magistrates’ court – saying that you cannot do this.
You can, but you need to take the matter to the ‘Clerk to the Justices’ (or the Justices’ Chief Executive as they are now often called) to arrange this.
Interestingly, Councils can even do this for you but rarely will. (Section 82 Local Government Act 2003).
You may need to tell the Clerk about guidance given by the High Court on setting aside liability orders is found in R (on the application of Newham London Borough Council) v Stratford Magistrates’ Court  All ER (D) 17 Jan.
- There must be a genuine and arguable dispute about the liability to pay (e.g. should you have been awarded a reduction or the figures are wrong).
- A substantial procedural error, defect or mishap has occurred – often boiling down to not getting the summons to begin with.
- The application should normally be within three weeks of you learning about the liability order (some leeway exists if you are disabled).
In nearly every case you can have an argument about paying at least part of it – the local council costs always exceed the 50p – £3.00 the summons actually costs.
If your application succeeds
If your application succeeds then the liability order is ‘quashed’ (extinguished) by the court.
For the Council – which also needs to know about your application – it’s the equivalent of landing the snake.
The liability order ceases to exist and the council has to go back to the beginning in demanding the tax.
What if the Court refuses?
If you have a genuine dispute about how much you owe, you can still take your case before the Valuation Tribunal England or the Valuation Tribunal Wales. These little-known tribunals are where many council tax disputes get solved.
The Tribunal has ‘snake and ladders’ powers as well. It can extinguish or reduce the amount upon which led to the liability order. So, you owe less or zero.
Appeal to the tribunal is crucial is often if you are facing bankruptcy proceedings. The bankruptcy hearing should be adjourned whilst you go to the Valuation Tribunal.
The Valuation Tribunal can decide the whole bill was wrong, sending the case right back to the beginning.
Currently there are a growing number of complaints about failures of service with notices in other council tax proceedings, involving bankruptcy or charging order cases.
Instead of using the post, these documents get served personally by a process server. The process server has to deliver them to you at the right address, providing a sworn certificate of confirmation.
Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in every case. If so, the person can get their bankruptcy annulled if they never knew about proceedings from a failure to serve documents. Any case of failure of service should be investigated.
At worst, any deliberate failure serving documents will be a contempt of court or perjury because the process server has misled the court. In 2012 a court process server was jailed in Peterborough by District Judge Madge who stated: “The courts must send out a clear message to other people who might commit such an offence that perjury normally results in imprisonment in order to deter them from doing so.”
This shows how fundamental these rules are and how courts expect them to be strictly followed. As Lord Donaldson once remarked: The courts are concerned with the administration of justice, not with playing a game of snakes and ladders”. (WEA Records Ltd v Visions Channel 4 Ltd-  2 All ER 589)