Merton Council has been reprimanded after a bailiff decided to add an extra £110 onto a couple's existing debt following an argument with their mentally ill son.

A complaint was made to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman by a woman referred to as Mrs X regarding the way the council recovered an outstanding council tax debt, in her husband Mr X’s name, using its bailiff.

Mrs X said the bailiff should not have added fees onto the debt and having to pay these has caused her financial hardship.

She also said she only paid the debt as the bailiff visit caused distress to her son, Mr Z, who suffers with mental illness.

The complaint itself dates back to March 3, 2018, issued Mr X with a new annual council tax bill, of £1,653.08, for the period beginning April 1, 2018. As the council received no payment it sent a reminder on 24 April 2018.

A back and forth then ensued over the coming months, where part of the debt was sporadically paid to the council, until September that year when Mrs X paid £1,186.93 to the council, leaving £310 outstanding. At this point a final notice was issued.

Come March 29, 2019 and a bailiff attended Mr and Mrs X’s property. Mr X was not in and Mrs X answered the door.

The bailiff’s bodycam footage showed the bailiff told Mrs X about the outstanding debt and went through the payment history with her. The bailiff told Mrs X he should be charging an extra £110 but would not do so.

Mrs X said she was disputing the debt with the council and tried to get Mr X on the phone so he could speak to the bailiff. The bailiff told Mrs X if she did not pay the debt, he would remove their car. Mr Z then came to the front door and Mrs X and the bailiff discussed the possibility of taking the television instead. The footage shows a disagreement between the bailiff and Mr Z and at this point the bailiff said he is adding £110 onto the debt and will remove the car.

The Ombudsman found fault with how the bailiff charged the sale fee and that the council may be wrongly charging the fee on a regular basis.

As a result it recommended three points of action.

  • Within four weeks of the date of the final decision to refund Mrs X £110 for the sale and disposal fee the bailiff added to the debt.
  • Within three months of the date of the final decision to look back at previous cases over the last 12 months where sale fees have been charged but no goods seized
  • Consider whether the sale fee has been correctly applied. Refund individuals the sale fee where it has not been correctly applied.

A Merton council spokesman said: "We are happy to accept the ombudsman's findings, which found that the council was only at fault on a technical matter regarding the precise point at which we must collect further charges in addition to charges that have already been made for non-payment.

"We have updated our processes to ensure that extra charges are applied correctly, but it is absolutely vital that everyone pays their council tax on time and keeps to any payment arrangements.

"Persistent non-payment means we lose money and can't provide the services that our residents depend upon.

"We hate to take further action, so if anyone is worried about being able to pay they should get in touch with us before the courts get involved and further costs are added.

"We will deal with all enquiries sensitively but Merton's residents should be assured that if people do not pay we are obliged to chase them in order to provide services like libraries, parks and social care."