Council enforcement agents acting on behalf of a local authority wrongly seized a woman's car - and her means of employment - when attempting to recover a debt, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that Merton Council made a "catalogue of errors" when it tried to recover a debt the woman owed to the council for unpaid council tax and road traffic offences.
The errors made by Merton also led to the woman being unable to arrange a payment plan, the LGO said.
Enforcement agents seized the woman's car as compensation for the unpaid debt. They clamped the car and subsequently auctioned it.
The investigation found that when the woman tried to contact the agent responsible, he was unavailable and the recorded message on his phone suggested he would be difficult to contact.
The woman complained to the council and explained her car was a ‘tool of the trade’ as she worked throughout the country and would not be able to work without it.
According to the Ombudsman, the council did not properly consider what she said and did not tell the woman about her right to go to court to appeal the decision.
The car was then sent to an auctioneer but the woman was able to raise the funds to release the car.
During the process of clamping the woman's car, the enforcement agents also spoke to her brother about the debt, compromising her privacy.
Later, when the woman incurred a further debt and failed to stick to an agreed repayment schedule, the enforcement agent returned to her home, seizing her car a second time. The car was then sold at auction.
Following this, the woman complained to the Ombudsman. Its investigation found multiple problems with the way the council did not follow the Taking Control of Goods Regulations, including failing to record or keep proper records of its actions, poor communication and failing to inform the woman of her rights.
The investigation listed more than 20 faults in the way the council and its enforcement agents handled the debts.
In response to the Ombudsman’s findings, the council has agreed to:
- apologise to the woman;
- pay her a financial remedy of £1,050 to reflect both her distress and time and trouble in bringing the complaints, and also the value of her car when sold at auction. This will be used to offset some of her outstanding debt;
- give the woman a clear breakdown of one of her debts to allow her to put forward a payment plan;
- provide the Ombudsman with a service improvement plan and an update on proposals to introduce a new policy for the use of body worn cameras by enforcement agents.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said: “We have issued this report because this case is an example of the problems that can occur when councils and their agents fail to follow the proper procedures. I would urge other authorities to consider its detail and learn from the mistakes made here.
“We were particularly concerned by the council’s actions in removing the woman’s car, after she explained its necessity for her work. It took away her means of earning a living in a way that appeared contrary to the Regulations. It then compounded that fault by not telling her she had a right to appeal. Local authorities who act as enforcement agents must always consider carefully the consequences of using the powers they are given and exercise them lawfully.
“It is to the council’s credit that it readily accepted it got things wrong early in the process and has done a lot of work on its own initiative to improve the service it offers to residents.”
Merton Council has been contacted for comment.