This particular Local Government Ombudsman’s decision deals with the is very recent having only been released to the public on the LGO website in August 2018. It is likely to be the most important decisions yet from the Ombudsman regarding the way in which local authorities and enforcement companies deal with a vulnerable person.
Many people who consider that they are vulnerable wrongly believe (usually because of misleading online information) that their vulnerability means that they should not be subject to bailiff enforcement or alternatively, that their account This is simply not correct.
Vulnerability and Mental Health
One of the most common areas of vulnerability is mental health. At any one time, one sixth of the entire population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression).
As outlined on this page from our website, if a person considers they are ‘vulnerable’, they would need to provide some evidence as to how being vulnerable affects their ability to deal with the debt…….and to engage with the enforcement agent. This particular Ombudsman’s decision clarifies this position once again.
A short extract of the decision is below. The full decision can be viewed on the Local Government Ombudsman’s website here.
- The complainant (Ms B) says the Council did not take her vulnerability into account when refusing to recall her debt from the bailiffs.
- Ms B says what has happened has caused her even more anxiety, she is suicidal and she needs enforcement action to stop to alleviate her stress levels.
- She wants the Council to take back the debt from its enforcement agents.
1). Ms B owns more than one property. She moved back into her home, after being homeless for over 12 months.
2). She received a visit from a bailiff. She said that she had not previously been aware of council tax outstanding for the period she was homeless. She provided evidence to the Council of her mental health conditions. She stated that she is a single parent and her children have disabilities. She asked the Council to take back the debt from the enforcement agents (bailiffs).
3). Ms B had a property and part of the property was rented out. She said that because she cannot cope with going out or dealing with people that the rental agreement was done with the help of a close friend.
4). It would seem that since March 2016, both the Council and its enforcement agents had made efforts to reach an agreement with Ms B to pay the debt. She did in fact make payments in February and March 2018.
4). The Council considered that despite the evidence of her mental health that this did prevent Ms B from engaging with the enforcement agents. Accordingly, they would not ask the enforcement agent to return the debt.
5). In February 2018 the enforcement agents agreed a temporary hold on enforcement action to give Ms B an opportunity to provide information about work that had been carried out to one of her properties.
6). The temporary hold was also to give Ms B help and support and an opportunity to discuss a suitable payment arrangement taking account of her personal circumstances. If the Council and Ms B were able to reach an agreement to repay what was owed, further enforcement action would be avoided.
The Local Government Ombudsman’s decision
As Ms B’s complaint concerned a number of very important subjects relating to bailiff enforcement against a vulnerable person, we have itemised the decision under different headings.
The Taking Control of Goods National Standards allow for discretion.
The Ombudsman reiterated that the National Standards say that enforcement agents and creditors each have a role in ensuring vulnerable people are protected and that the exercise of appropriate discretion is needed.
If a debtor is vulnerable, should a Council take the account back from the bailiffs?
As in previous decisions, the Ombudsman referred to the National Standards and stated that whilst the standards set out the circumstances when an enforcement agent MUST withdraw from domestic premises, (Items 72 and 73) the standards do not say that a creditor must always withdraw a case from enforcement agents if a debtor is vulnerable.
Did the local authority consider the evidence about the debtors vulnerability?
Yes they did. They considered the evidence of Ms B’s mental health and were of the opinion that this did not prevent Ms B from engaging with the enforcement agents and accordingly, they would not agree to ask the enforcement agent to return the debt.
There was no evidence of fault in the way the Council reached its Final Decision:
Commentary from Bailiff Advice
If you are vulnerable and have a query about a letter or a visit that you have received from a bailiff, you can email a question to Bailiff Advice in confidence using our online Enquiry Form. Alternatively, you can contact our free helpline. Details are on our Contact page.