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In this guest blog, Alan Murdie, LL.B, Barrister discusses why he believes people should attend court when summonsed. 

When I was at Bar School in the 1980’s, we were essentially taught:

“You will be a barrister with rights to appear in all courts and tribunals. You will be instructed by a solicitor. If your client is on a low-income – certainly if lower than yours is expected to be – then your client may qualify for legal aid which will also help pay the solicitor. Legal aid is there for many legal cases civil and criminal.”
How I wish you could turn back the clock!

It seems like a lost golden age. But even then, there was never legal aid for local tax cases before the magistrates’ court. So if you ended up not paying the bill for the rates on your home (as the local tax was known) you could not get a legal aid lawyer to come and represent you.

This was the same under the short-lived and ill-fated poll tax or community charge.

It has always been the case with council tax

There is no legal aid for council tax liability orders. Even though, in an average year, they represent the greatest number of judgements passed in any type of debt proceeding.

The official policy under successive governments is not to fund defence lawyers to fight on your behalf in your local magistrates’ court in a local tax case. The only exception is committal to prison. Indeed, since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012, even fewer people can claim any state help anything at all.

So, if you are going to be represented, you have to pay for a barrister or solicitor yourself. Inevitably, this is a luxury that many people summonsed cannot run to. After all, if you could afford legal representation, you would more than likely have paid your local tax bill to begin with…

Summons errors

I have seen a summons for a dog in Hackney called Pancake (addressed to a ‘Mr Pan Cake’); a gentleman on the Isle of Wight addressed formally in a summons as ‘Mr Isle of Wight County Council’ – which sounded like some kind of body builder. I’ve also seen in proceedings commenced against a city in Poland rather than the actual lady whose name was grossly miss pelt.

Nothing eclipses three summonses in Lambeth in 1990 respectively addressed to ‘God the Father, ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Ghost’. Either it was divine intervention, or the the result of a hoaxer or data tampering. There would certainly have been an argument about whether these summonses had been properly delivered and served to the right address, if this mistake had not been detected before the hearing.

Summonsing the dead takes place from time to time. One case was defended by the daughter of the deceased taxpayer turning up in court with his ashes in a cremation urn. There have been instances of people who are fully exempt being summonsed such as the seriously mentally impaired and full-time students.

To cap it all, summonses even get sent to people who have paid.

Errors creep in

These mistakes should have been spotted, but too much is automated. Errors creep in. Computers run much of the process and summonses going out in bulk – waves of thousands at a time in urban areas. The council computer sends a signal with a batch of data on record to defaulters to the magistrates’ court computer, resulting in the issue of summonses in those names.

Many debtors are destined never to appear. Other people have just simply moved elsewhere and left no forwarding address. But for those who have an argument over the bill, the vital thing to do is to turn up at the magistrates’ court. If only to seek an adjournment of their case.

The importance of attending

Invariably, if you do attend court when summonsed – and this is strongly advised – you may find the Council becoming a lot more reasonable.

They may well have staff at court wanting to help and sort problems out. Sometimes, this is less motivated by a wish to see your problem solved but from fear that you may go into court and start representing yourself before the magistrates.

This is your right, as the summons under section 34 of the Council Tax (Administration & Enforcement Regulations 1992 SI 613. It has been sent to allow an opportunity for the person to “appear before the court to show why he has not paid the sum which is outstanding.” Which means you have a right to go and present your case yourself.

In theory, everyone summonsed is entitled to ask for an individual hearing before the magistrates. If that happened – given thousands of people are summonsed at once – then proceedings would become impossible and the system would grind to a halt. Thus, Councils often try to discourage attendance.

At the very least, the Council wants to avoid the spectacle of an individual taxpayer taking up time before the court.This could potentially show the Council and its workings in a bad light.

For example, the council may have failed to work out a council tax reduction or not determined an application for a discretionary reduction. Or you may have an appeal for the valuation tribunal. Worse still, you might even ask the Council to justify its costs, appearing on the summons, and which are typically inflated in England with ‘admin costs’. Just what are they, please?

Councils would much prefer it if you don’t show up at all

But the best advice is to attend court when summonsed. Because if you do attend physically, then the Council may become amenable to sorting out your problem or reaching an amendment.

With bigger debts, the higher courts increasingly expect the person to put their case at the earliest opportunity. In such a case, the magistrates may agree to adjourn the case. This can provide a breathing space for settlement.

Often there is not much the magistrates can do, but the hope is you and the Council reach an agreement. The magistrates may even tell the Council to go and have a meeting with you outside the court to do just that. If the Council does reach an agreement, always get a copy in writing. In some cases, the Council may apply to withdraw the case against you entirely.

So, the best advice is to attend court when summonsed. 

Further reading

Take a look at our Council Tax Campaign to prevent council tax imprisonment. If you are a debt adviser and would like to speak to a member of the partnership team, get in touch today.