If you have council tax or rates arrears, you will need to contact your local council in England and Wales or Land and Property Services in Northern Ireland and make an arrangement to repay them. You will normally be expected to clear your arrears within the current financial year, which ends on 31 March. If you cannot afford this, work out what you can afford and tell the council or Land and Property Services. You may be able to arrange a longer repayment period if you are on a low income or have special circumstances, for example, if you have a short term drop in your income due to illness. You will need to pay an amount off the arrears on top of your usual monthly council tax or rates payment.
Depending on your situation, you may be entitled to a discount or reduction in your bill. If you live alone or are the only person responsible for the council or rates tax, you may be entitled to a discount.
In England and Wales, you may be able to claim Second Adult Rebate if you have to pay council tax and you live with someone else, other than your partner. The other person must be 18 or over, not paying rent, not responsible to pay council tax, and have income below a certain amount. If your own income is below a certain level, you may be entitled to Council Tax Benefit instead. When you claim, the council should work out which benefit will give you the most help with your council tax. You can get a claim form for Council Tax Benefit and Second Adult Rebate from your council.
If you have, or someone living with you has, a disability, you may be able to get help to reduce your council tax or rates bill.
If you are a full-time carer or someone in your home has severe mental impairment, you may get a discount. Severe mental impairment can include things like Alzheimer's disease and serious learning disabilities.
If your home has been adapted for a person with a disability, you may be able to get a disability reduction. The person with the disability can be anyone living in your home. It doesn't have to be the person paying the council tax or rates.
Ask your council or Land and Property Services for an application form for a discount for a carer or person with severe mental impairment, or a disability reduction. You can ask for all of these if they apply to your situation.
If you do not agree that you owe the council tax or rates, for example, because you have been charged for a period when you no longer lived at that address, tell the council or Land and Property Services straight away. If they agree, they can stop the court action or enforcement action. If they do not agree or you cannot contact the council or Land and Property Services, you will need to go to the court hearing at the time shown on the summons or you should contact the Enforcement of Judgments Office in Northern Ireland.
If you owe the council tax or rates jointly with someone else, the council or Land and Property Services can still ask you to pay the whole amount back and can take further action which will depend on where you live:
If you fail to pay off your council tax arrears, or to reach an agreement with the council, your council can apply to the local magistrates' court for a liability order. This is a court order, which says that you must pay the whole amount of council tax owed for that year, not just the arrears. The liability order allows the council to take action against you to make you pay. In Northern Ireland the Rates Collection Agency will seek payment of the rates arrears through the Enforcement of Judgments Office and will take advantage of the enforcement options available through the Enforcement of Judgments Office, for example, through an attachment of earnings order or an order charging land.
You will be sent a summons. This is a court document telling you how much the council says you owe and the date and time of the hearing where the court will consider whether to make the liability order. The council can add costs to the amount you owe to pay for the application for the liability order. You should contact the council and try to make arrangements to pay off the debt before the hearing. You won't be able to do this at the hearing itself. The council might agree to let you pay off the debt in instalments, if you cannot afford to pay it all straight away. If you do make an agreement to pay, the council may be willing to cancel the summons or to cancel the court costs, provided you keep to the arrangement.
The Land and Property Services will seek payment of the rates arrears through the Enforcement of Judgments Office and will take advantage of the enforcement options available through the Enforcement of Judgments Office, for example, through an attachment of earnings order or an order charging land.
You will be given notice of any action that the Land and Property Services are taking through the Enforcement of Judgments Office prior to any enforcement action. You should contact the Land and Property Services to try and make arrangements to pay off the debt before enforcement action is taken, as enforcement action incurs additional costs and interest on the arrears owed. If you cannot afford to pay it all straight away, the Land and Property Services may be willing to come to some arrangement and may be willing to halt the enforcement action.
Liability order hearing
At the liability order hearing, the magistrates will decide whether you are the person responsible for paying the council tax and whether to make a liability order.
If you agree that you are responsible for paying the council tax, you don't need to go to the hearing. If you don't agree that you're responsible, you should go to the hearing and try and prove this to the court. You will need to bring proof with you, for example, a bill showing your name and real address. If the magistrates agree that you don't owe the council tax, they will not make a liability order.
If a liability order is made, the council can:
You will be sent another summons, called a committal summons. This time, you should go to the court hearing. If you don't, you could be arrested. If you can't attend the court hearing for any reason, contact the council and arrange another time for the hearing. Try to come to an arrangement with the council that you can afford beforehand, if you can. The council can add further costs to your debt, to pay for the court summons and hearing.
What happens at the committal hearing?
At the committal hearing, the magistrates must look in detail at your financial situation to see if you can pay. This is called a means enquiry. Tell the magistrates about any special reasons why you haven't been able to pay, for example, a drop in your income or changes within your family. This will help them to decide what order to make. If you are in financial hardship or cannot pay for other reasons, you can ask the magistrates to write off (remit) all or part of the debt.
If the council can show you have refused or not made an effort to pay, the magistrates could send you to prison. Usually though, they will make an order postponing the warrant to send you to prison, as long as you pay off the debt by regular instalments.
You can ask someone to go with you to the court hearing if you need help to explain your situation. The court doesn't have to let the other person speak on your behalf, unless they are a solicitor. You may qualify for help to pay for a solicitor under Legal Aid, or the court may have a duty solicitor you can speak to when you get there.
After the committal hearing
After the committal hearing, make sure you understand what you must pay and when the payments are due. If you are not sure, ask the council officer to explain. You must stick to the payments until all the money is paid off. If your circumstances change or you are unable to pay for any reason, contact the council straight away and make another arrangement. Otherwise, they may have you arrested and brought back to the court to say why you haven't paid.
The Enforcement of Judgment office has wide ranging powers to make debtors settle their debts. For more information see our '' section.