Anyone who fails to pay their first month’s council tax payment of less than £200 could find themselves slapped with a bill for more than £2,000.
Citizens Advice has found that a missed first payment in England and Wales can mean a person will be forced to pay the tax for the full year up front, as well as court costs of £84 and bailiff fees of £310.
Bills could rise as high as £2,000
The calculations by Citizens Advice are based on the first council tax payment in England and Wales typically being £167, and the average annual fee, which amounts to £1, 671.
So with the court and bailiff fees added, the total could increase to £2,065 within just nine weeks.
If the council tax bill is missed later on in the year, the bill may be smaller.
Campaign for laws to change
But Citizens Advice is campaigning for the law to change so that people struggling financially are not slapped with a big bill.
Mark, who is unemployed and suffers from a mental health condition, is one of those who was faced with the large bill.
The 53 year old said, “Last year was not a good year in terms of my health or finances. I had so many debts that it became very stressful and hard to find a way to make my money stretch to cover them all.
“In August, a letter arrived from a bailiff. I had become liable for the full year bill and my council tax debt was now with them. I felt really intimidated, agreeing to pay £10 a month, even though I knew I could not afford it.”
‘The most stressful and upsetting months I have ever had’
Mark is now receiving help with his finances, but said that the months when he was waiting for than help and being called by the bailiffs were “the most stressful and upsetting” he has ever had.
According to Citizens Advice, nine per cent of households fell behind in their council tax payments between 2017 and 2018. The charity also estimates that more than £560 million in fees was added to council tax debt between 2016 and 2017. This includes £300 million in bailiff fees.
While financial pressures on councils mean they are increasingly reliant on council tax to fund local public services, stretched household finances mean more people are struggling to keep on top of their essential bills, including council tax.
"Council tax regulations make it harder for people to pay their original debts instead of helping them to get their finances back on track," said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.
The government announced this month that it will review the way local authorities collect council tax.
Remove the threat of imprisonment
As well as preventing people being slapped with the full annual bill in one go if they miss a payment, Citizens Advice wants to ensure that changes are made to legislation to prevent the threat of imprisonment over council tax arrears in England.
It is asking for an independent bailiff regulator and is asking councils to create affordable repayment plans for people before taking the issue to court.
It is also asking that councils are given the power to collect the debts without being required to use processes such as court orders, which incur more fees for the person in debt.