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Information for people summonsed to court over council tax

The first part of this post is from Leeds Hands Off Our Homes. See their site for more on the council tax benefit fight and on their campaign against the bedroom tax.

Now it is Council Tax Benefit that is being cut too.

The Conservative led Coalition Government in Westminster decided that for the current financial year 2013/14 the money payable to Leeds City council under the new council tax support scheme would be reduced by about £5.2m.

Reducing spending to wipe out the debt left by irresponsible bankers was the excuse but it is those who can least afford to pay who are picking up the bill.

71% of councils are asking working age adults to pay some council tax.

In Leeds, the amount payable was set at 19% meaning that a single person who previously paid nothing now has £125 to pay a year and a couple will have to find £166 a year. This is money that those on benefits cannot find unless they go without essentials such as food, clothing or the cost of utility charges. 36,000 families in Leeds are affected

What happens in court?

People have received reminder letters if they failed to pay the council tax demanded (28,000 sent out in June!) and that has been followed by a summons to come to Court. Initially you will be asked to speak to an officer of the council. You will be asked to reach an agreement to pay and also to pay the costs of the summons and the costs of the liability order which will add £90 to what you owe.

You do not have to agree anything. You have the right to demand to speak to the Magistrates – but that will mean you have to wait until later in the morning.

You could ask the Magistrates to not impose the costs as they are too expensive or you could ask that your case is adjourned to give you time to apply for a review of the bill under the council tax reduction scheme.

This could result in the debt being reduced to nil but it will mean writing a letter to the council explaining why you are in financial difficulty or “vulnerable”.

If you stick to your guns it may be that the council officers will agree to your demands in order to save court time. If you don’t ask you don’t get – so give it a try. We may be able to help you in Court and you should not feel intimidated. You are not here as a criminal and Magistrates may have sympathy with your position.

Council Help. Councillor Wakefield, Leader of Leeds City Council, has said “we are trying to do all we can to help vulnerable people”, but it was he who agreed to bring you to court.

Support the campaign.

We have been campaigning over the Bedroom Tax for months and will fight every cut in benefits that the Tories throw at us. Join us as together we can win.

Phone 075040 17322 e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


More on the council tax benefit cut:

With the council tax benefit cut (see our False Economy Guardian story on the number of people who were expected to be affected by that cut here), people who previously paid little or no council tax – because their incomes were so low -  must now pay a proportion of it.

City councils like Leeds are enforcing this cut, with predictable results – hardship and people in tears outside the magistrates' court as the terror of further costs and even arrest takes over.  Here's council leader Keith Wakefield saying that sometimes people on benefits need a “toughlove” approach. Shame we don't see the same toughlove being applied to the financial sector, or to the senior management teams at G4S and Serco for £50m worth of fraud, but there you go.

About three weeks ago in Leeds, we went to the magistrates' court and talked to people who had been summonsed for non-payment and were in tears about their council tax bills.

A woman called Claire, for example, cried as she explained that she was on employment and support allowance, had a teenage daughter who was still living at home and studying and said that she would have to cut her food money to pay her council tax bill - which with costs now stood at about £200.

Claire had gone into the court building with her summons letter and come out having agreed to pay £12.50 a fortnight – no small sum out of her ESA benefit, which was only about £70 a week. “I didn't know whether to come here or not, but I didn't know if they could arrest you [if you didn't attend]. Do you know if they can arrest you?” She said she'd tried to make an appointment at her local Citizens' Advice Bureau to get some advice, but the CAB was so busy with people with similar "welfare reform" problems that she hadn't been able to make contact.

A young man called David showed his summons letter – he'd built up council tax arrears of about £130 and it seemed that another £65 in costs had apparently been slapped on the top of it. “What is that for?” he asked. “I can't afford to pay it.” Leeds council and the courts (as happens all over) have whacked costs on top of the outstanding council tax sums – the “logic” here being that people who can't afford to pay their new council tax bill will of course be in a position to pay £60+ in court costs as well. Another man called Mark said he was not going to pay. He couldn't afford to, but he'd also decided not to. He didn't think the process was legal and wanted to know more about his rights before he tried to pay up.

The purpose of the hearing was for the council to apply for liability orders, although council officers were also inside making “arrangements” with people to pay. Liability orders are dreadful. Liability orders, as the council puts it, “give us the right to demand information about you and give us “certain powers” which we can use to obtain payment.” Those “certain powers” include taking money from people's low pay, or small benefits and sending the bailiffs round to take your possessions.


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