Pulling Together


Courts circular

I came home last Saturday from a walk with friends to a nasty little surprise. There was a letter on the mat. When I opened it my initial reaction was it must be a scam. It was demanding payment of Council Tax plus debt collectors’ fees on a property I have not owned or lived in for three and a half years.

Then I looked again. The letter had a barcode at the top to be used when paying at a post office. Would scammers have a contract for payment with the Post Office? That seemed unlikely as the payments would be traceable. I spent the evening checking through all my bank statements for the period I lived in the house concerned and the year following. Two things stood out: I had overpaid Council Tax in my final seven months of occupancy, and the surplus payment had not been refunded after I left.

I recalled my attempt to use the Council’s online form to tell them I’d moved. It had been rejected because my new address was in a different local authority area. The form only accepted moves within the city boundary. Whoever had written it evidently could not cope with the idea people might actually move around. I presumed I had then telephoned them, waiting the hour or so on hold, to tell them of the move, but had I? What if I hadn’t? The bill came to over two and a half thousand and there was now a court judgement against me. At that point I remembered I had had an e-mail from my bank a month or two ago, reducing my overdraft limit drastically, not that I ever have an overdraft, so I didn’t really care at the time, but now I know why.

Council offices are not open at the weekend so I had to spend two nights before I could do anything about it. I did e-mail the debt collectors asking for information on the order, but have heard nothing so far.

On Monday morning a few minutes after nine, I gathered my information and rang the Council. They only took 50 minutes to answer. That must be some sort of record! How did we let our society degenerate to this state? No wonder our productivity is so low when we are also one of the longer-working countries in the world. Every minute spent listening to boring music interrupted by crass announcements is a minute producing no output.

At least the man who answered proved extremely helpful. He assured me that my old Council Tax account had been closed a few days after I moved out and a new one had been created for the house. At least the Council had known I had moved – well, sort of. The problem was the new account had been created in my name as well, as if I would have moved from my old house to my old house.

The rest of the scenario would follow as clearly as the morning after the sunrise. The council would have sent a new bill to the old house, addressed to the person they knew no longer lived there. This would be returned undeliverable by the new resident, or possibly just binned if the person were less scrupulous. Reminders would have received the same fate, as would all communications addressed to me, right up to the summons and the judgement letter which would follow. Even the bailiff’s initial approaches would be treated the same. Eventually they would call and be told I no longer live there, have not done so for some time, and my present whereabouts are unknown.

At that point one might think intelligent agents would have pause for thought. If I were not resident at the property how could I be responsible for the tax on it. Might they not have gone back to the council and queried whether they were pursuing the right person? Of course not. That would be expecting too much. No, instead they used whatever processes they have to track down a debtor who has gone to ground. Around six months later they sent a letter to my correct address.

So, here I was, but there was still the issue of the court order. The council might accept I did not owe the money, but what about the debt collectors? They had a paper in their possession from a court confirming with legal certainty I owed the money. Could the council stop them? I had no idea. In any case, the bank had apparently reacted to these events. I must have a judgement against me and that needs to go. I rang my solicitor, the one who handled the sale as it happened, but the receptionist told me the firm would not handle this matter and I would need to try a large city-centre practice. Of course, large city-centre legal firms charge large city-centre fees. It would probably cost more to clear my name than the unjust amount being demanded from me. At lunchtime I decided to phone a friend who works as a barrister. Maybe he'd be able to suggest something. He was, as I hoped, at lunch, but he was also in the middle of a case and needed to get back to court, so he would ring me that evening.

I also rang the Magistrates’ Court to see whether I could find out what the order was, but it turned out Council Tax cases are dealt with in a different district. At least I knew which court I probably needed to deal with. However, when I rang I was told the office only dealt with administrative matters and I would need to speak to the court itself.

My friend was as good as his word. He told me there were two possibilities. Ideally, the council would go back to the court and ask for the order to be cancelled as no longer wanted, but as I could not rely on that I should try to get the case reopened by signing a Statutory Declaration that I knew nothing about the case. I had 21 days to do that and if it were accepted the case would be reopened and I would be able to show the magistrate I had sold the house before the debt arose. If the council agreed with me it should be a short, simple process. Alternatively, if that could not be done, he would help me appeal to the Crown Court for the order to be overturned. I went to bed feeling suitably reassured. I would take the letter and the Estate Agent’s invoice to Weston-super-Mare in the morning and see what could be done.

Of course, it’s not that simple, as I found out when I got to the court. Once I had been searched I went to the counter where I saw a notice which looked ominous. It was. People wishing to speak about County Court matters should ring for attention. People for the Magistrates’ Court should phone a number. The number looked familiar. Was it not the number I’d rung the previous day which told me I needed to speak to the court itself? Since I had driven 20 miles I decided to ring the bell anyway. The lady who came to the other side of the glass explained the office in the building was only for the County Court and the administration for the Magistrates was based at Taunton Magistrates’ Court. So that is where I went next. I parked in the suburbs and walked into the centre of town. Finding the court was a struggle as I had no idea where it was but with the help of an extremely kind local lady I was taken to the door. She was keen to show me the sights of Taunton as we walked and at one point mentioned somewhere called Baldwin Road. I apologised that I did not know where it was and she became incredulous, but let the matter drop.

There I saw three different people before I was finally told that they couldn’t help me and I would have to go to the County Court in Bristol to get anything done. Now all I had to do was find my car and drive home. That was not easy as I had got lost on the way to the court and only found that with local help. I no longer knew where I was or which direction I needed to go to find the area in which I had parked. I set off in what I guessed might be the right direction based on street names, but after many minutes passed a shop I had passed on the way into town. The problem was, I passed it in the same direction, so I couldn’t be going the right way. I turned round and headed back. There were four floodlight towers ahead, but I knew I had passed the football ground at the other end of town, and I didn’t remember seeing any floodlights there. It turned out to be the cricket ground, and was clearly much better funded than the football one. I knew I had not passed that on my way in. I changed direction again. I eventually found myself beside a large dual-carriageway road. Perhaps there would be a signpost somewhere to give me a clue where I was going. I knew I had parked about half a mile from the Premier Inn, so if I could find that I could trace my steps from there. Eventually, I stumbled on a footpath under a bridge that looked vaguely familiar. I went down onto it and began to walk along it. It looked very familiar. It led to a crossroads I recognised, and by the layout I knew the road opposite was the back street in which I had parked my car. It was called Baldwin Road!

I laughed at the joke. We might think our world is out-of-control and full of horrors — war, famine, disease — but that is because we can’t grasp the big picture. Unbelievably bad many things may be, yet there is hope and humour too. Evil will not ultimately triumph and Faith does not give up. That is little comfort to those caught up in the nightmares, though, but still, there is hope.

By the time I got home I had driven 100 miles and achieved nothing.

Yesterday morning I cycled over to the County Court. I had to give up my helmet and pump at the door (I think the security guard thought it was a gun of some kind). Then I went to the counter where I was told what I had come to expect. They could not help. They have nothing to do with Council Tax and I must go to the Magistrates’ Court. I checked my watch. It was past eleven o’ clock so the Magistrates’ Court counter would be closed. I had completed the circle. I had phoned one court and visited three others and still was no closer to finding out the reference number for my case or the procedure for reopening it. I went home.

Where do I go from here? I really don’t know. The Council now say they have withdrawn their summons and called of the debt collectors. Maybe, but still there is the question of the record. Will that remain? I will have to watch out.

The council has also decided to charge me its costs, claiming I did not tell it I had moved, but that’s really not relevant. Irrespective of how they found out I had moved, they did, as evidenced by their closure of one account and creation of another. They would not have done that unless they knew I had moved out and new people had moved in. If they thought I had stayed and a family had joined me there they would simply discontinue my single-occupier discount. Closing the account shows they knew I had gone, and creating the new one in my name rather than that of the newcomers could only be their mistake. I have pointed that out to them, but do not know whether they will agree.

I cannot believe how labyrinthine the court system is. It has proved impossible to negotiate, and those with no knowledge of their case cannot access any information without that knowledge. It also seems most odd that a court would issue a judgement of any kind without some sort of evidence to back up allegations made. After all, the council could not have presented any evidence that I actually owned or lived in the house it claimed, because I didn’t and there isn’t any. The magistrate seems to have accepted their claim as sufficient even though as a matter of public record it was untrue. Franz Kafka would find it familiar.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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