More than 20 faults found in the way the council dealt with debtor
A catalogue of errors by debt collectors working for Merton Council led to a woman being unable to work, the Local Government Ombudsman has found.
The woman, who has not been named, had racked up debts to the council through unpaid council tax and traffic offences.
But the ombudsman found that when enforcement agents tried to recover the debt, they made a catalogue of errors, so the woman was unable to arrange a payment plan.
Because it remained unpaid, they clamped her car and spoke to her brother about the debt, compromising her privacy.
The woman ended up complaining to Merton Council explaining that her car was a ‘tool of the trade’ as she worked across the country and was unable to work without it.
The ombudsman ruled that the council did not properly consider this and did not tell the woman about her right to go to court to appeal the decision.
Her car was sent to an auctioneer and the woman was able to raise the funds to release the car.
But her car was seized a second time when she incurred a further debt and failed to stick to an agreed repayment schedule, the enforcement agent returned to her home, seizing her car again – this time the car was sold at auction.
An investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found more than 20 faults in the way the council dealt with the case.
This included failing to record or keep proper records of its actions, poor communication and failing to inform the woman of her rights.
The ombudsman Michael King said: “We were particularly concerned by the council’s actions in removing the woman’s car, after she explained its necessity for her work.
“It took away her means of earning a living in a way that appeared contrary to the regulations. It then compounded that fault by not telling her she had a right to appeal.
“Local authorities who act as enforcement agents must always consider carefully the consequences of using the powers they are given and exercise them lawfully.”
But he added that it is to the council’s credit that it “readily accepted it got things wrong early in the process”.
Merton Council has since apologised to the woman and gave her £1,050 compensation for the distress caused – it will be used to offset some of her outstanding debts.
A spokesperson for Merton Council said: “We take full responsibility, and have complied with the Ombudsman ruling in full. Our bailiff team works hard and they play an important role in the local community. They have a difficult job, dealing with thousands of sensitive cases each year.
“Issues like this are thankfully rare, but we have implemented an improvement plan, reviewed our policies, provided refresher training from an industry expert and improved monitoring.
“However the collection of unpaid council tax and fines takes up council resources which we would rather direct towards vital front-line services.”
By Tara O'Connor, Local Demcracy Reporter
July 27, 2020