Cheshire East Council

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High Court finds council tax liability hearing was unfair as claimant was unable to hear evidence from officer

A magistrates’ court hearing of a 76-year-old man’s challenge to a council tax liability order was procedurally unfair, the High Court has found.

The claimant had been seeking to challenge a liability order made in favour of Mid-Suffolk District Council in respect of unpaid council tax relating to a leasehold property in a village near Ipswich.

The order was made at Ipswich Magistrates Court in November 2019.

In Paling v Ipswich Magistrates Court & Anor [2021] EWHC 2739 (Admin) the grounds were (1) the ability of the claimant to hear what was said at the November 2019 hearing, and (2) the refusal to allow the claimant to make oral submissions in addition to the 10-page synopsis he had handed into the justices.

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The relevant passages in the claimant's Statement of Facts were as follows:

"6 The solicitor stood with his left hand in his pocket, his back to the Applicant and spoke in a very low voice, which only the bench could hear."

"8. The Respondent's solicitor could not be heard from the Applicant's place, and so the Applicant could not answer the Respondent's submission. When the Applicant several times expressed concern that he could not hear the Chairman of the Justices took no measures to enable the Applicant to hear the Respondent's solicitor, as in Franz Kafka's Der Process (The Trial)."

"10. The Claimant refused to allow the Applicant to make an oral submission. The Applicant had handed in a 10-page synopsis of his case at the beginning of the hearing, and the Chairman refused to allow the Applicant to make oral submissions. When the Applicant expressed concern, the Chairman threatened to dismiss the Application."

David Pittaway QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, said he was not concerned with the nature of the dispute but only with the fairness of the magistrates’ court hearing.

On behalf of the claimant, who has a number of medical conditions, it was submitted that he was unable to present his case properly at that hearing.

The primary criticism was that the claimant was unable to hear a revenues officer from the council, who spoke in a soft voice, who addressed his remarks solely towards the bench.

The claimant's witness statement produced a plan of the court room, which showed that whereas the officer was situated close to where the magistrates were seated, the claimant was sat about 20' away.

It was also submitted that the claimant informed the magistrates that he was unable to hear the officer, and that no reasonable adjustments were made for his age and health.

Further when he attempted to make oral submissions to supplement his 10-page synopsis, he was told by the chairman that his appeal would be dismissed if he continued to speak. If that was correct, it was submitted it would amount to a breach of the rules of natural justice.

On behalf of the council, it was submitted that in the circumstances it was clear both from the note prepared by the officer and the First Defendant's legal adviser that the matters raised by the claimant were not raised at the hearing.

The council argued that there was nothing from the legal advisor to indicate that the claimant raised the issue that he was unable to hear the officer or requested reasonable adjustments. Second, it was evident that the claimant did make submissions during the course of a hearing that lasted over two hours.

It was submitted that there was no merit in the claimant's assertion that he was prevented from addressing the court nor was it credible that after a 2-hour contested hearing the claimant "did not know fully the case against me and/or the basis on which my application to set aside the Liability Orders was resisted".

Counsel for Mid-Suffolk submitted that the claimant's application for judicial review should be dismissed on the grounds that the allegations of unfairness, apparent bias and procedural unfairness as alleged were not borne out by the evidence. Neither he submitted, would a fair minded and informed observer conclude upon considering the evidence put forward by the magistrates’ court that there was a real possibility of bias, or actual unfairness in the proceedings on 27 November 2019 as the claimant alleged.

Finally, the difficult hurdle that the claimant had to cross at the hearing to quash the liability orders was highlighted.

Judge Pittaway said the papers and the 10-page synopsis that the claimant prepared for the hearing on 27 November 2019 demonstrated that the claimant did understand the case that was being made against him in advance of the hearing.

“The more difficult question is, however, whether I consider that the hearing itself was unfair. In my view, the two notes from [the officer and the court’s legal advisor] do not respond directly to the Claimant's central allegations that he was unable to hear what [the officer] said, that he informed the magistrates that he was unable to hear, and that he was not given the opportunity of making closing oral submissions.”

Judge Pittaway said: “Standing back and reaching an independent view, I have concluded that the claim for judicial review succeeds. In my view, on the basis of the Claimant's evidence, which I accept, a fair minded and informed observer would conclude in this case that justice had not been seen to be done. I do not consider that the merits of whether the Claimant's application would succeed, upon which I do not form a view, should alter my decision.”

He added that the claimant's application to quash the liability orders should be remitted to the magistrates to be heard by a differently constituted bench.

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