Campaigner wins council bills case
An anti-poverty campaigner who says millions of poor people could be getting unfair bills for costs run up by local authority officials who take legal action against them for non-payment of council tax has won a High Court fight.
Retired vicar Paul Nicolson took legal action after complaining that magistrates ruling on allegations of council tax non-payment were failing to check the accuracy of costs bills said to have been run up by Labour-controlled London Borough of Haringey.
He complained that figures were being wrongly ''lumped on'' to legal costs bills and were a ''penalty'' unfairly imposed on the poor.
He also claimed the problem could be widespread.
Mr Nicolson, 82, of Tottenham, north London, began litigation after not paying a council tax bill as a matter of principle.
He said he was issued with a summons for non-payment of council tax by Haringey Council.
Magistrates in Tottenham made a 'liability order' against him and ordered him to pay £125 costs. He asked a judge to declare that magistrates failed to check the accuracy of the costs bill.
Bosses at Haringey Council disputed his allegations and said his judicial review claim should be dismissed.
But Mrs Justice Andrews, who analysed evidence in a hearing at the High Court in London on April 30, ruled in Mr Nicolson's favour.
"I'm delighted," said Mr Nicolson after the ruling. "It's game, set and match to the poor."
He added: "I'm not a socialist. I'm a Christian. All I do is state the facts on poverty."
Mr Nicolson was the vicar of Turville, Buckinghamshire, before retiring more than 15 years ago.
The village was used as the setting for BBC television comedy The Vicar Of Dibley.
Mrs Justice Andrews said she had concluded that magistrates in Tottenham had not had "relevant information" before them when making a costs order against Mr Nicolson.
She said questions relating to the way the council compiled the bill were for "another day".
"Mrs Justice Andrews has noted that the Tottenham magistrates did not know the answer, have lost any answer they might have had (and) did not try to find the answer," said Mr Nicolson.
"She has stated in her judgment that the magistrates are lawfully required to decide the matter of costs in accordance with the regulations.
"They must be satisfied that the local authority has actually incurred those costs, that the costs in question were incurred in obtaining the liability order and that it was reasonable for the local authority to incur them."
Mr Nicolson said he had mounted the challenge because a £125 costs bill was a "very big penalty" on top of "the inevitable council tax arrears" generated by thousands of benefits claimants in Haringey.
And he said the case had nationwide implications because about three million liability orders were granted by magistrates every year to councils in England and Wales.
He said he wanted Haringey Council's external auditors to produce a report on the £125 cost bills submitted to magistrates.
Mr Nicolson added: "The related question is - what is the point of enforcing the council tax against people whose incomes are so low that they cannot pay?"
Mrs Justice Andrews was told that Mr Nicolson spent more than £1,000 bringing the case and two barristers - Helen Mountfield and Eloise Le Santo - had agreed to represent him for free at today's hearing.
''It is clear that matters were included in the figure for costs that cannot properly be included,'' Ms Mountfield told the judge. ''£125. It may not sound like very much money to a magistrate ... but it is to a lot of people.''
Magistrates were not represented but barrister Josephine Henderson, who represented Haringey Council, made submissions in their favour.
''We say a local authority officer made submissions - gave an explanation - on the day,'' she told the judge. ''That explanation was considered sufficient by the magistrates.''