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'Millions face unfair costs bill'

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, according to an anti-poverty campaigner.

Retired vicar Paul Nicolson has taken High Court 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 the Labour-controlled London Borough of Haringey.

He complained that figures were being wrongly "lumped on" to legal costs bills - and a "penalty" unfairly imposed on the poor. And he says the problem could be widespread.

Mr Nicolson, 82, of Tottenham, north London, launched litigation after not paying a council tax bill as a matter of principle.

He says he was issued with a summons for non-payment of council tax by Haringey Council - and magistrates in Tottenham, north London, made a "liability order" against him and ordered to pay £125 costs. He wants a judge to declare that magistrates failed to check the accuracy of the costs bill.

Bosses at Haringey Council dispute his allegations and say his judicial review claim should be dismissed.

Mrs Justice Andrews today analysed evidence at a hearing in the High Court in London and said she would deliver a ruling on a date to be fixed. She said the case was of "wider importance".

"I brought this case because there are around three million people being handed liability orders by the magistrates every year - in England and Wales," said Mr Nicolson after the hearing. "I fear this problem could be widespread - it could affecting millions of people. And I hope this judge is going to put it right."

He added: "This is a penalty against those who cannot afford to pay council tax."

Mrs Justice Andrews was told that Mr Nicolson had 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."

:: Mr Nicolson was the vicar of Turville, Buckinghamshire, before retiring more than 15 years ago. The village was used as the setting for the BBC television comedy The Vicar of Dibley.


From Belfast Telegraph