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Friday, 19 July 2013

Tears In The Council Tax Court

Yet another round of Council Tax hearings in Truro Magistrates Court today.
A beautiful sunny hot day and I chose to go along to the Court to observe proceedings. Boy was it hot in the waiting room.
I arrived early, to make sure I got a seat….. no not really, I am the only one mad enough to go and watch.
Today I would at a guess say there were a couple of dozen people that turned up. Yes, they turned up because they were ‘summonsed’ to do so.
Unlike Dover Council who do their best to promote injustice by telling people “NOT to turn up”
Right, back to Cornwall.
The waiting room got busier, mothers had even brought their children in pushchairs today. One poor man who was obviously on lots of medication and wasn’t really fit to be there was getting quite agitated. That all started when he dropped it all on the floor.
Time passed and the usual was happening. Council Officers were calling people by name and off they go into the side rooms.
I went with one man as he gave permission for me to be there. We shall call him Steve. A single father to a six year old. Poor guy was in a bit of a state. I had already taken a brief income and expenditure from him. It was obvious that this man’s only ‘crime’ was that he was poor.  His only income is JSA, Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit. So much more needing to go out than he has coming in. Having to make up a shortfall of £23 per week for his rent before you start is bad enough. This man didn’t know anything at all about the ‘Exceptional Relief Fund’. I pointed out that the Council had not done a lot to inform anybody of this fund. To sum up Steve was told any ‘action’ on his account would be held off for one month. In order for him to make his application etc. I did explain to him that should he still wish to see the Magistrates they may make an order for his costs to be taken off. Sadly as Steve’s son was only six and due to come out from school 14 miles away, he needed to leave. Liability Order would now be granted in his absence.
Moving on, it was over an hour before actual proceedings started. I along with Mr Waters from Cornwall Council were in the Court. I had to ask the Clerk for permission this time if I could sit where the Journos sit because if I sat at the back of the Court, I wouldn’t hear all of what was being said, nosey aren’t i???
Today we have Three Ladies on the Bench Pat Walker, Fiona Roberts and Sue Biggs.
Clerk Mr Huw Anthony (hope I’ve spelt it right).
Representing the Council Mr Adrian Waters [I'm on first name terms now I think ;-) ]
Today, the Three, yes just three cases that wanted to speak were all brought in together.  The Clerk stood and made his speech about how there were only a few ‘legal defences’ aginst the liability of CouncilTax. So unless you had one of these blah blah. It was at this point Mr Waters stood took the Oath and made his speech asking for 1052 Liability Orders to be granted. There we go all done and dusted in about 2 minutes flat!!
Case One:
A disabled Lady, in fact very disabled. We shall call her Ms W. The Clerk asked her to come forward, she did so using her stick as an aid and the the lady beside her came as well. Neither person was asked to swear an Oath…… Turns out this young Lady Ms W has something called Aphasia’. I know little about this condition and for those of you that have never heard of it, this is what it says on the NHS website….. “‘Aphasia’ is a condition which affects the brain and leads to problems using language correctly. People with aphasia make mistakes in the words they use, sometimes using the wrong sounds in a word, choosing the wrong word, or putting words together incorrectly. Aphasia also affects speaking and writing in the same way. Many people with the condition find it difficult to understand words and sentences they hear or read.”
So to put it simply, Ms W has no idea really why she was here.
The lady advising her was a Housing Officer ‘Ms S’ and she stated, Ms W ‘flagged up’ because apparently she has asked to move homes within Devon and Cornwall Housing. She stated more than once that Ms W has been ‘let down by Social Services’. I kept asking myself, why was this poor soul here at all? She has severe communication difficulties etc and how sad that it has come this far. Outcome was that yes, the Magistrates gave the Liability Order but to their credit they did order that costs should be removed. One did in fact say that it was ‘out of their control’.
Case Two.
We shall call this lady Ms R. Clerk calls her down and again NO Oath taken. He eplains again about the ‘Legal Defences’ etc. Ms R had a bundle of receipts with her. The Magistrates allowed her to speak. She explained that she had been trying her best to pay and all she owed was just £8, yes EIGHT pounds. (I can only assume that the figure she quotes is to date on plan and not the balance for the whole year). I smiled to myself when she said “actually this here today is waste of Tax Payers money” . She had however applied for the Transitional Fund. To which Mr Waters told the Court that he had telephoned Cornwall Council to find out that the amount Ms R owed has now been reduced. Ms R also pointed out that WiFi in the home is NOT a luxury when your child needs it for school projects etc. Nor is a mobile phone contract when you are disabled and may need to get hold of people in emergencies. This Lady also faces the ‘Bedroom Tax’.  Outcome – Ms R was given the option to pay by installments the amount left and to contact the Council in order to sort this. She was however granted that her costs would be taken off.
Case Three.
We shall call this Gentleman Mr Q. Once again NO Oath was taken. He was given permission to address the Magistrates.
Typical case of DWP not rushing anything this one. It turns out that his Partner/Wife was in the process of having her Benefit changed from one type to another. What he came out with next made me shudder. The poor man has a great deal of money worries. He explained that he also has ‘Bedroom Tax’ to find. After several minutes my heart was in my mouth and ALL three of the magistrates looke a little less comfortable. They asked him if he had been to CAB etc, he replied, ” I tried to get in but it is several miles away and now you have to make an appointment. They can#’t see me for a week”. He was trembling when he stated that “the money he was given was given as ‘The minimum the LAW says you need to live on and now he was having to find not one but TWO extra amounts of money. The Magistrates then asked if he too had filled in a Transitional Relief’ form. Well, you could have knocked me over when he replied “NO, I have never heard of it”. I looked at Mr Waters, he looked at me we both acknowledged each other with a small nod of the head and the Clerk looked at us both as if to say ‘what just happened?’. Then came the dreaded ‘F’ word. Yes FOODBANKS. Well that was it for me, the tears started to roll down my cheeks, I tried to hide it but that didn’t work very well. This poor man told a Court of Law that he goes without food. He does this because he simply can not make ends meet. The Magistrates asked him if he knew of the Local Foodbanks. He replied “Yes but sadly you can only use these 3 times a year. Oh my I lost it, was really snivelling now. The Magistrates all could see that this was a case of severe hardship, sadly though they said ‘”our hands are tied but our gift to you is that we make No order for costs. Hopefully you can apply for the Fund and in turn that will reduce your debt to the Council.”  Mr Q did not want to make an ‘arrangement to pay’ at this point as neither he nor the Council knew how much his actual debt was! Liability order was granted for the amount that was on the Summons. Mr Q was told to fill in his form ASAP.
I was in a bit of a state by now and found it hard to write my notes.As Mr Q was passing me to leave, I nudged his arm, I pulled out the only Fiver I had in my purse and told him, “It’s not a lot but all I have on me, please go buy yourself a little food”.
I know all the others saw what I did but quite frankly, I don’t care what they thought. I may be on Sickness benefits myself but this man’s need was greater than mine.
It’s 2013 for goodness sake and this is what’s happening ALL OVER the Country. In fairness to Ms Walker, Richards and Biggs, they could only do what is permitted, although I would like to think that maybe, just maybe they wished they could do more. With that I stood and asked if I could be excused from proceedings.
So lovely people there you have it…… Council Tax for the poorest round 2!!

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