One in four households in the borough are being served court summons for failing to pay their council tax.

A freedom of information (FOI) request has revealed Lambeth Council as having one of the toughest approaches to non payment of the tax in the country.

Figures show some 36,131 of the borough’s estimated 120,000 households were visited in 2007/8 and bailiffs deployed to chase up payments 31,258 times.

An FOI to the country’s 370 local councils by the Lib Dems revealed Lambeth used more bailiffs than any of the 171 local authorities that supplied figures - including city councils.

Figures later supplied to the Streatham Guardian by the council differ and show it issued 29,378 court summons and 20,506 bailiff visits - still more bailiff visits than any other council included in the FOI.

Critics have called Lambeth’s methods “draconian” and say people on low incomes are being pushed closer to bankruptcy as the court and bailiff costs - which can amount to hundreds of pounds - are passed on to them.

Yet the council says it is very important it uses all its legal powers to collect money due. To fail to do so would be unfair on those who pay their council tax and who rely on the services the council provides, it said.

The figures also show the council pursued 85 households for bankruptcy - second in London only to Tower Hamlets.

Debt advisors have said once bankruptcy proceedings are initiated, people can face legal bills of up to £50,000 in insolvency and legal costs, even though their original debt could be as low as £750.

A spokesman for the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) said court summons and bailiff visits should be a last resort.

He said: “It appears when you look at these figures that Lambeth may be treating this kind of behaviour as a first resort for non-payment when it may not be totally necessary.

“Councils have a right to use these methods to receive money owed to them but when done unnecessarily it can cause great distress.”

Questions have been raised over the effectiveness of employing bailiffs.

Lib Dem opposition leader Ashley Lumsden said Southwark Council, that has a similar economic demographic to Lambeth, had only marginally lower council tax collection rates in 2007/8 - but half the number of bailiffs.

He said: “More draconian tactics methods are not producing a noticeably higher collection rate for Lambeth than our neighbours.”

Lambeth collected 93.4 per cent of its council tax, employing 31,258 bailiffs, while Southwark collected 92.5 per cent, employing 16,523 bailiffs.

But Lambeth say the contribution to council tax collection from the use of bailiffs was £1.5m in 2006/07 and £0.9m in 2007/08 and they have been using both bailiffs and court summons less.

A council spokeswoman said council officers do their utmost to reach agreement on repayment schedules with residents who are in arrears - including work closely with debt advice agencies - before enforcing court orders to recover sums owed.