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How to deal with council tax arrears: our top tips

When the debt amounting from council tax arrears starts to pile up, your financial problems can seem unsurmountable.

Meanwhile, the worrying letters, final notices, liability orders and court summons never seem to stop, adding to the sense that you’ll never be free from the debt hanging over you.

Technical jargon and wordy warnings are hard to decipher too, while you can add to this the threats from bailiffs who turn up at your door and try to make you sign paperwork and gain access to your home to seize property.

To help you gain the information you need to know we’ve come up with this list. Following these tips will help you manage your money and deal with your debt, starting you on the path to a stress free financial situation.

  • Don’t ignore it
  • Prioritise your debt
  • Speak to a council tax advisor
  • Let us deal with the bailiffs
  • Don’t let the bailiffs in
  • Know your rights
  • Avoid going to court
  • Get the proper help and advice you need


Don’t ignore it

First and foremost, don’t ignore your council tax arrears. You should consider council tax a priority debt. This is because it’s extremely hard to avoid paying it, and doing so can have some pretty serious consequences.

If you don’t settle your account, your local council will be sure to take the following steps in order to recuperate the outstanding debt:

  • A first reminder
  • A second reminder (only in certain circumstances)
  • A final notice (in certain circumstances)
  • A Court Summons
  • A Liability Order

Once the court have issued a liability order, the local council is granted certain powers that it can use to recover the debt. This can allow them to send out an enforcement agent (commonly known as a bailiff) to seize your personal goods and put them up for sale at a public auction.

They can also set up an attachment of earnings which in basic terms means your employer can deduct a portion of your wages directly from your salary or wages in order to settle your debt. In this instance your employer will send payments to the court, then the court will send the money to your creditor.

The same can also be done to certain benefits, in what’s known as an attachment of benefits.

This could apply to you if you’re in receipt of benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, pension credit or universal credit.

The council can also place a charge on your property, take insolvency action against you, or in some extreme circumstances take committal action — which could lead to a custodial sentence.

Prioritise your debt

As mentioned above, council tax should be considered a priority debt, and dealt with above other debts or financial obligations that you may have.

Council tax accounts for approximately a quarter of local authorities’ incomes in England, Wales and Scotland and has to be paid by most households, with the amount depending on the band your house falls into, your age and income, and who else you live with.

Local councils are granted special legal powers which allow them to collect council tax, and they often act very swiftly in response to unpaid payments. This could lead to bailiffs coming to your house, which will be discussed in more detail below.

If you’re more than two weeks late in paying an instalment then you’ll be sent a reminder letter. If you then fail to to make payment within seven days of the reminder letter your local authority can ask to be paid the entire amount for the year. If you pay within the seven day window then you can carry on paying in instalments as usual. If you don’t pay the entire amount within seven days then your local authority can issue a summons and take you to court.

If you’re unable to make your council tax payments then you should contact the council and make an arrangement to pay off your arrears. Carrington Dean offer expert debt advice that can help you work out a budget depending on your income.

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Speak to a council tax advisor

The best way to deal with your arrears is to speak to a council tax advisor. Our team have experience dealing with both the council and debt collectors.  They’ll be at hand, ready to help manage your debt. On your behalf, we can help negotiate a plan that suits your needs and means. That way you’ll never be forced to try to pay more than what you’re able to.

If you do owe council tax arrears, you shouldn’t wait around for your local council to get in touch. You can contact your council and ask to discuss your debt with someone in the tax office. Better still you can let us deal with your debt.

If you ignore your arrears, your local council is likely to take you to court to try and reclaim all the money owed at once.

In addition to the council tax debt you already owe, they’ll add on court costs and bailiff fees to your bill. This can add hundreds of pounds to your debt.

We can deal with the arrears and stop the bailiffs and local council from contacting you. Our team will act as a mediator between you and the debt collectors or local council. What this means is you won’t have to speak to them. You’ll no longer receive letters or have debt collectors banging at the door. We’re able to arrange for the council tax to be broken down so you can pay up in monthly instalments in a way that suits you.  

Let us deal with the bailiffs

If you don’t pay your debt, it’s likely that the council will then pass it on to a creditor.

Adding to the financial burden, this will also the increase your worry the possibility of a bailiff turning up at your home, making demands and trying to repossess your valuable goods, or trying to force you to sign paperwork.

Once you’ve been sent a notice of enforcement, the bailiff process formally starts. You’ll have seven days to deal with the debt and avoid a visit.

After this, they’ll be able to visit you between permitted hours. Although they’re not allowed to enter your home without your permission, it’s likely they’ll try and convince you to let them in or push their way through the door. Even though bailiffs can no longer gain access through open windows, it’s a good idea to still make sure they’re closed.

Once you’ve had the letter of enforcement, there are still a number of ways that you can deal with the debt. Ultimately though, the only way to stop the bailiffs is to settle your debt entirely.

We can work with you to negotiate with your creditor. We can contact them, and ask to suspend the bailiff action while we work out a repayment plan that works for you. By working out how much you can manage to set aside each month to pay off your creditor, we’ll help you move towards a debt free life.

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Don’t let the bailiffs in

The chances are that the bailiff who turns up outside your door doesn’t have the right to enter your home. The only exception to this is when a bailiff has received a court order which would permit them to force entry. This is very unlikely for a council tax debt as enforcement agents aren’t permitted to force entry unless it’s to collect income tax, stamp duty or unpaid criminal fines. Even then, this can only be used as a last resort.  

If you do ever let a bailiff in to your home, then they’ll be able to force entry on any following visits. It’s therefore important not to let them in. You can speak to them through the door or letterbox instead. Or opt to speak to them outside your house — just be sure to ask the bailiff to go and wait in his car while you step outside, and ensure you’ve locked the door properly.

If you let the bailiff in, it’s likely they will then make a note of all your valuable belongings that they’ve seized. What they’ll then do is ask you to sign what’s called a ‘walking person agreement’, which allows them to take legal control of your property. If you sign this agreement then the enforcement officer is allowed to return to collect the goods — and can even break in to do so. But if you refuse to sign the agreement, then the bailiffs can remove the items on the spot.  

Once they’ve removed your goods, there’s normally still a period of five days to act before the items are sold. The enforcement agency will use the sale of these items to write off your debt with your creditor. Any remaining money after the sale must be returned to you.

If you’re expecting a visit (and the bailiffs haven’t already taken details of your car) make sure you hide it somewhere at a good distance from your property, or store it in a garage for the time being. If the bailiff finds your car, they could clamp and remove it if it’s parked in your drive or outside your property.

If the bailiffs can’t get into your house after several attempts, then they’ll refer your debt back to the creditor, who may take further legal action. They might post what’s termed a ‘statement of means’ through your letterbox too, which will ask you to supply details of income and expenditure. This will then be given to the court, who will use the information to work out a monthly payment schedule. Although you don’t have to complete the form, the court might interpret not doing so as evidence of your unwillingness to pay.

Given that once your creditor has passed on your debt to the bailiffs you can incur even more debt, it’s wise not to ignore any letters about your arrears. Pass it on to us and we’ll deal with it for you.

Know your rights

There’s some key information you should keep in mind if you’re in arrears and expecting a visit from the bailiff.

  • The bailiff should give advance notice that they’re planning to visit your home
  • You should ask the bailiff to show some identification like an ID card or a badge that proves who they are and on whose behalf they are working
  • Bailiffs aren’t normally allowed to force entry unless you’ve granted them entry in the past
  • You don’t have to grant them entry unless they’ve been in peaceably before
  • If you do grant them entry, there are certain items they’re not permitted to take such as essential items, work tools and clothes
  • Bailiffs must follow agreed national standards and act within the realms of the law at all times
  • Ask for a written breakdown of what is owed. The law stipulates that bailiffs are only allowed to add on set charges to your debt, so if you think they’ve charged you too much then you can complain
  • Most bailiffs need a certificate from the the county court which gives them the right to act. If you’re unhappy with the way a bailiff has acted then you can complain directly to the court and ask for the certificate to be withdrawn. You should seek advice if you’re considering this.
  • If you’re unsure about the above, or any other of your rights, then you can seek advice directly from our team.

There are also certain circumstances when you should make a complaint about a bailiff if you think they’ve acted improperly towards you. Enforcement officers must follow strict guidelines when they’re dealing with you, and have to treat you fairly. They can’t threaten you or lie to you about having powers they don’t actually have. They’re also not allowed to discriminate based on your sex, age, sexuality, ethnicity, disability or religion. If you suspect they’ve breached these guidelines then you should make sure you report them.    

They also have to take particular care if you’re a vulnerable person. This includes people with a disability, the seriously ill,  the elderly, single parents and those who are suffering from mental health issues.    

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Avoid going to court

If you don’t deal with your arrears you could ultimately find yourself with a summons and end up in court.  The court will consider if you’re able to pay the bill, and then assess whether you have a valid reason not to pay the bill. Although this rarely happens, you can also be sent to prison for up to three months if the court judges that you don’t have a good enough reason not to be settling the debt. They’ll have to prove that you’ve actively tried to avoid paying, and they’ve exhausted all other means of making an arrangement to pay back your debt.

As discussed above, your local council will apply for a liability order on the date of your hearing. Not only will this incur additional costs, but you’ll also have to pay for court fees as well as the bailiff fees as well, if there are any.

Get the proper help and advice you need

Our specialist team of council tax advisors can help manage your debt for you so if you’ve received a letter about your council tax arrears, or an enforcement letter from the debt collectors, we’re here to help. We’ll provide free expert advice and discuss your financial situation.That way we can work out a specialised payment plan, working as your representative when speaking to the local council and enforcement agency.

You can also get free help and advice about your debt from the following sites:

You can talk to a specialist advisor at Citizens Advice by searching for your local office.