Written by Alan Murdie, LL. B, Barrister who offers his advice on what to do if you miss a council tax instalment or get a Reminder Notice.
For poet T.S. Elliot April was ‘the cruellest month’. For many getting council tax bills this year due from 1 April, it certainly is proving to be just that.
Average councils tax bills have increased by 4.5% since last year.
And it’s also becoming abundantly obvious that the instalment system (by which most people pay) needs a major overhaul along with the system of sending out Reminder Notices if you miss an instalment.
YOUR ANNUAL BILL IS AN ESTIMATE
The first thing to remember is that your council tax bill is based only on an estimate of what your council thinks you are should be liable to pay in the next year if nothing changes.
Your council tax is a daily tax. Each day you live in your property you are liable for a daily amount in council tax.
So, if you move out or something changes significantly about your income or your household – and that potentially covers a lot of things – your payment amounts will also change. You may even move out entirely, whereupon your daily liability should cease completely.
So, if something major happens in your life, for example, you or someone living with you moves out, you qualify for certain benefits or you become a student or get an exemption, your council tax bill will have to be recalculated and you will have to be sent a new bill.
In the meantime, with your current bill if you miss an instalment you get sent a ‘Reminder Notice’.
REMINDER NOTICES – COMPUTER’S IN CONTROL
A computer is in charge of your local council’s billing process, not a human. The computer is programmed to receive and process your payments in instalments.
If you miss a payment, this will trigger the issue of a formal Reminder Notice, addressed to you, ‘reminding’ you that the instalment needs to be paid.
All well and good, but you have to act quickly – within 7 days.
The devil is in the detail because the Reminder Notice normally only gives you only 7 days to pay the instalment, otherwise you have to pay the whole tax for the year – the full sum stated on the bill.
So, after more than 7 days you can find yourself having to pay the entire year.
If another seven days go by (that is 14 days after the date of the Reminder Notice) and you don’t pay the full year’s tax in that time the council can then apply for a Summons.
This means the council can take you to court the tax owed every day up until 31 March 2020.
The reminder notice is a legal requirement, a step the council must follow before it can take any court action.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE REMINDER NOTICE SYSTEM?
In my opinion, the Reminder Notice system is flawed in it:
- only gives you 7 days to pay the missed instalment
- makes you liable for the whole year’s tax
- has to be recalculated if anything changes in the year
- makes no allowances for those who are self-employed who have variable incomes
- can easily lead to a summons to court, to which further costs get added.
A further flaw in reasoning with the Reminder Notice process can be seen in that it does not distinguish between deliberate non-payers and those who can’t pay, for whatever reason.
Nor does take into account, as I’ve said, that your total tax bill may vary during the year, all the way up to 31 March 2020.
Your circumstances may change in the coming year, but making you liable for the whole year at an early stage doesn’t account for these changes.
A SYSTEM THAT’S OUT OF DATE
This system of Reminder Notices is hitting the taxpayer and it is long past its sell-by date.
The wrongful assumption in official thinking here – so far as anyone in Government has thought about this system for years – is the idea that this 7-day reminder system deters deliberate non-payment. However, it makes no allowance for the fact that most people missing instalments are ‘can’t payers’.
I believe the Reminder Notice system is badly designed and it has been unchanged for nearly thirty years. The current rules on Reminder Notices mirror almost exactly those that came in on on 1 April 1990 for the ill-fated poll tax, which had little protection for those on low-incomes.
In fact, the Reminder Notice system helped doom the poll tax, making non-payment worse. If you couldn’t afford an instalment, you certainly couldn’t afford the year’s unpaid balance.
Before 2013 council tax protected you if you were on a low income via the national system of Council Tax Benefit. That was abolished in 2013 and replaced by local decided reduction schemes. Each one of these is slightly different.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I MISS AN INSTALMENT OR GET A REMINDER?
First thing you should do is contact your council – in writing. Don’t rely on telephone calls. And don’t be put off.
Councils say that they want to help people with problems paying, so you must demand (politely) that they support you.
Once you miss an instalment, or if you get sent a Reminder Notice, contact the council.
Not every council rushes immediately to issuing summonses, but often the computer automatically arranges for one to be issued any time after the 14-day period is up.
Tell the council you want to reach an agreement on paying.
Do this in writing and demand a reply. Remember to:
- Apply for any reductions that may be available
- Chase up any reductions the council is still working out
- Explain how your circumstances are set to change in the year ahead
- Apply for a discretionary reduction.
What you are ultimately doing is interrupting that computer programme that carries otherwise to summonsing.
The human intervention is best secured in writing, preferably by e-mail as this generates an automatic acknowledgement. This will help you to prove your correspondence and your efforts to settle should it go any further.
Sensible councils should be pleased reach an agreement on you paying any monies owed.
So if you are expecting your income or personal situation to affect your ability to pay your monthly council tax instalments this year, my advice is contact your council and let them know.
They will be able to support you, agree a payment arrangement and more importantly intervene on the automated communications, including Reminder Notices that can start court proceedings.
If you would like to know more access my Council Tax videos on PayPlanPro . The series includes: