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North East Lincolnshire Council - in collaboration

Councils stage mock

- with -

court action scamming millions of pounds each year from struggling householders in pursuit of coercing Council Tax payment

Joint Heist Operation

Grimsby Magistrates Court

- The Wait Arrived at court well in advance of the scheduled 9 o'clock hearing. While going through the security checks, I got the first sense that the summons I'd received to appear before Magistrates at said time was bogus, and part of what would turn out to be an elaborate and lucrative confidence trick pulled off by the council. As security ordered that all metal items, including coins, were deposited into their plastic tray, I joked it would be unlikely I'd be leaving with the amount I'd gone in with. Security staff took my name and gave assurance I'd be "DONE" early, as one of the first arrivals. Obviously then this was not a personal and exclusive invitation to appear before Magistrates to answer said complaint at the specific time stated on the summons. It turned out this was done for the council's convenience, to enable easier processing of the unknown number of defendants who might turn up. Although theoretically this could run in to thousands on any given scheduled hearing, the lack of information and the contrived way it was presented on the summons ensures only a handful attend. Reception staff then gave the instructions to wait in the foyer. Some attendees had been taken to the upper level of the building where I assumed Council staff had set up temporary residence for interviewing unlucky victims who'd come in good faith to appear before Magistrates. This was a reasonable assumption because it was the Council's court Enforcement Manager running up and down the stairs. I knew because he'd been assigned to cover-up fraud, highlighted in a formal complaint to the council about its bailiff contractor. It escalated to a point were a meeting was thought necessary and remember the smug way he'd bragged about courtroom conquests and his power to ruin peoples lives by means of bankruptcies and repossessions etc.

None of the court staff had the decency to explain what procedure would follow so I enquired at the reception and asked why at quarter past nine there had been no contact by anyone despite the formal appointment for a hearing at nine. It turned out the court didn't commence until 9:30, so then queried why I'd been dragged to the court half an hour before this. The receptionist's response was "to allow the defendants some breathing space". I then asked (admittedly with fake surprise) if I was not the only defendant summonsed for the nine o'clock hearing. She answered "no, all defendants have the same time stated on their summons". I made a point of emphasising 'ALL DEFENDANTS!' Then mischievously prompted a figure.....three....four....more? She then revealed that they hadn't details "it was Council Tax", implying some special arrangement existed. I put it to her that the council's involvement should be limited to making the complaint to the court and there should be no reason for the court not to hold details of the liability order applications. It was then admitted that the council dealt with the process and had nothing to do with the court. I thought my questioning had been productive and was happy to leave it at that, but to double check I sought confirmation that the council were running the show. I hadn't misheard, it was confirmed and as a bonus learned that the probable venue would be courtroom number one. Kicking my heels, I waited and remained in the dark; nobody thought it necessary to put me in the picture. I suppose a peasant, unable to keep up with council tax payments should not expect any courtesy from these people. It was by then 9:30, the tedium of all this forced me to leave the foyer for a nose through the courtroom area. An Usher had just exited the courtroom and so a similar line of enquiry was made as earlier. It was suggested enquiring with the Court Enforcement Manager (mentioned previously). I asked if he was a council employee, and explained it had nothing to do with him, when she agreed he was. There was nothing definitive she could tell me, only that it might be as late as one o'clock in the afternoon, but would check with someone. The temptation then was to go and see what went on upstairs where I suspected council staff had set up their stall for the morning. The problem was, the Council's Enforcement Manager, along with his buddy were almost permanently on smoke break outside the court's premises, ironically at the council taxpayer's expense. The plan was, when the cold forced them inside to replenish their coffees, I would follow them hopefully to the location where they circumvented due process. They seemed particularly resilient and must have become hardened to the cold outdoors, which made it some time before they re-entered the building. Awaiting the opportunity, I collared the Usher and asked if she had an update to the time of the hearing. She replied "around 10:30" but was uncertain it was then around ten o'clock. I sought verification she was referring to my hearing, the answer was, "no, the Council Tax may commence at that time". I settled for that and didn't ask what this meant and felt privileged to have that snippet of information. I caught site of one of the duo entering the building so got ready to tail him back to their base. This however, was not that easy, in fact I lost him in the space of three flights of stairs. His rapid pace and furtive movements meant that by the third flight he was out of sight and there was only the sound of the door closing to identify his location. I opened the door and entered a space the size of a small bathroom furnished with a couple of chairs and a desk behind which a

guy sporting North East Lincolnshire council ID was filling in paperwork. Other council staff included the two Enforcement Managers and a woman who I guess was also a council worker. I was definitely unwelcome which made me rather stuck for words. Through either nervousness or merely blankness of mind, instincts took over, so asked "is this where the bogus hearing takes place", and added I'd been summonsed to the court for a hearing at 9:00. There was no answer, only a sense that they urgently wanted me to leave. Any delay in vacating their office, would I'm sure have involved a call for security or the Police to have the peasant evicted, judging by the drama that was unfolding. With a bit of coercion from one of the smoke-break guys, they'd successfully evicted me from their top-secret operations. The other Enforcement Manager who'd previously pulled a fast one over the Rossendales fraud incident accompanied me down the stairs. I put the same question to him as I'd asked in their HQ, i.e., "was that where the bogus hearing was conducted?". There was no response, he ignored me completely. Although justified, my reaction may have been a little direct though accurately reflected my opinion. It had been a long time coming and was met with nothing more than a nervous kind of 'Chief Inspector Dreyfus' style chuckle. I assume he'd reported my uninvited visit to their Headquarters. Shortly after, while innocently reading a notice board, one of the security guys approached and told me to sit down as he'd heard doors being slammed upstairs. What seemed ironic about these council officer's was their apparent incredulity that I would dare to invade their privacy, when as a direct consequence of their actions, massive sections of the public are having their pockets rifled. The abuse is furthered as they then aid and abet their bailiffs to systematically thieve anything they've missed themselves. On reflection, the council had no more rights to be occupying that room as me or anyone else. A statement made by the council in connection with a Freedom of Information request prompted me to question if the authority hired the Magistrates' Court for the hearing. Its statement was: Costs collected also cover monies paid to Her Majesty's Court Service for the use of their facilities

In its response to my querying this it said: It has not been suggested that the Magistrates Court is hired by the Council. The costs collected cover the charge made by the Magistrates Court as well as other costs incurred by the authority. If you have any questions regarding the legality of the court process you should direct them to HMCS. All this then, means the council is on very rocky ground as they have admitted there is no payment made in respect of the court hearing. More importantly though, by front loading all costs to the summons penalty they have exposed themselves to legal challenge if they do in any way incur costs at this stage and recover them through the summons charge.

Both the council prosecuting and the bench Magistrate confirmed that costs incurred by the council were passed on to the defendant for the use of the court's premises, which is detailed in the next section (In the Courtroom). It was around 10:30, the same time the Usher unofficially said the "Council Tax" would commence. I risked another reprimand from security and headed to the courtroom. Through the door I saw the two council managers and court staff, presumably preparing for the hearing or perhaps signing the bulk liability order which would permit the authority to instruct bailiffs for the hundreds of defendants that had not turned up at the court. Wandering round the other courtrooms I met up with the same Usher again who was heading directly towards me. I asked if there was any news regarding the hearing. She continued walking and ignored me completely. After she'd passed I made the kind of comment often expressed when someone deliberately ignores you. It turned out she wasn't. It was only selective deafness because she turned round sharpish and demanded to know what I'd just said. I reiterated my first question which was "have you any news about when my hearing would be?". Her abrupt response was "No! What did you say after that?". So, an admission she had heard and ignored me to begin with. I was however, outnumbered as one of her colleagues piped up and said "I witnessed that! I heard what he said". It seemed I was being stitched up so I returned back to the foyer. The last thing I wanted was to be framed because I'd stirred-up the venom of the huddled mass of black robed Ushers gathered around their cauldron. If the way I'd been treat by the staff was typical of those attending the court then this was absolutely appalling. How HMCTS got away with it was a miracle. The level of service delivered by the court staff was non-existent. I went to the enquiries to pick up a complaint form and asked at the same time why I'd been summonsed to appear before Magistrates at 9:00am, as it was almost 2 hours after that and still nobody had advised me of the procedure. She asked if it was for Council Tax, and on confirming it was, she stated "it has nothing to do with us, the council deal with that". I was in disbelief and asked if she should really be admitting this. In her reply she stated that this was correct and repeated "the council deal with that". I thought I was imagining things as I'd recently read from two different sources that court staff shouldn't give the impression that these events are being run by the council. A document sent out by the Justices Clerks' Society, as a consequence of challenges (including from MPs) to the liability order process, revealed: Procedure in Liability Order Applications 5. Procedures prior to the hearing The Court and its staff should not give the impression that the Council is in charge of the process.

And from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy, in its "Guide to the Council Tax":

Human Rights Act 1998 Local authorities must be careful not to infringe an individual's human rights. Potential areas for problems are: notice of hearing; being careful not to appear to stop the taxpayer appearing before the court, if they want only to make a payment arrangement; not having available a translator for people whose first language is not English; and not separating the roles of court taking officer and the person who gives evidence of process.

- In the Courtroom At around 10:45 the same Usher came through to the foyer and called for me to go into the courtroom. I was led to the dock and noticed where normally three Magistrates sit, there was only a Bench of two. The Clerk to the Justices sat in front of the bench and faced the prosecution (the two council enforcement managers). There was something unnerving about the overly friendly and enthusiastic welcome I received from the Magistrate on entering the courtroom. This was a man who enjoyed every minute of what he did and you could tell he was about to have one of his bigger ego trips. It was painful watching, what seemed like a child, having to keep secret some news it intensely wanted to reveal at that moment. He had no choice other than to contain this throughout the charade, but what was evidently not his strong point was disguising his excitement. The Justices' Clerk directed the hearing, first asking me to confirm who I was and whether I had legal representation. I replied "no, but my written evidence had already been sent to the court". The prosecution first took an oath declaring formally that he was authorised by the council under the provisions of section 223 of the local government Act 1972 to prosecute on their behalf in proceedings before a Magistrates' court. And, the certificate had been signed (in accordance with section 53(4) of the Council Tax Regulations) stating its computer, which had produced the list of defendants, had at all times been working properly. The council's procedure in sending out relevant paperwork was in accordance with regulations and in this case not in question. Only costs were being disputed, i.e., the way they were applied and the assumption that the amount demanded would be awarded. I stated that the full amount outstanding on my council tax liability for 2012-13 had been settled on receipt of a summons and had paid the additional 10 sum to cover reasonable costs. I emphasised there was a 60 shortfall which the council now appeared to be claiming because it assumed 70 would be awarded. I argued that a key function of the hearing was for the bench to consider a breakdown of expenditure submitted by the authority from which it could determine appropriate costs to split between the number of defendants incurring them. It was not for the council to determine its own costs and demand these on the summons in advance of the hearing. The Clerk advised that this should be the way to go and the bench agreed. The spotlight was put on the prosecution to make an attempt at justifying the costs. The councils' representative stood up then admitted they were not required to justify costs to the court and had never submitted a breakdown. He did have a script prepared however, which contained to some degree the same as I'd quoted in my written evidence. It was likely devised from a Freedom of Information response or a statement made by the Chief Executive in answer to a formal complaint.

He was saying essentially that the costs covered Council Tax collection and recovery, IT systems, employment of staff and Her Majesty's Court Service for the use of their facilities. He was openly admitting in front of the bench that costs were being claimed for Council Tax collection. I'd included in my evidence that financing the Council Tax section was not an overhead it could lawfully fund from money it charged residents for summons penalties. However, the Magistrate seemed satisfied with his statement and showed his complete ignorance by drawing to everyone's attention that hiring the court made up some of the costs. An important concern raised in my evidence was the way council tax regulations were being breached by the council front loading the liability order costs to the summons penalty. The Magistrate had confirmed then, that costs specifically for a liability order (use of the court) were being charged for summons costs. What planet was he on? And more to the point, why had he been allowed on ours to perform a judicial role? Clearly if he'd bothered to read the evidence, he hadn't understood a word of it. I tried elaborating more on this later but it seems no matter how concrete the evidence, if submitted to a kangaroo court it was all done in vain. Somehow I managed to elbow my way in and raised the point about the council's letter advising the court that it had taken the decision to increase the summons costs to 70 (120% increase) and effectively front loading the liability order costs by no longer charging for them separately. The council then played on the overall increase being only 23%, as the summons had previously been 32 and liability order (not necessarily incurred) 25. He then compared the increase with the national average for unitary authorities, which according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy was 78. The bench Chairman then queried why costs varied from one authority to another. He asked "for example why 70, why not 50 or 125 like other places?" The council's prosecution came back with "there are no set prescribed costs for issuing a summons, they are just agreed with

the magistrates...70 is the national average, in Manchester you might be paying over a 100 and so forth." He then quoted Haringey council's 125 charge for issuing a summons.
He stated "there is no need to justify the amount" and reiterated the breakdown, adding "postage costs" this time to the listed items. The Magistrate said "so the cost is reasonable" These child-like arguments were obviously music to the Magistrates' ears. None addressed any of the relevant aspects of law put forward in the evidence, but unfortunately they were sufficiently simple for the Magistrate, having no apparent understanding of the law, to consider in delivering what I anticipated would be his verdict. If he'd disguised the enthusiasm shown for his bias toward the council it might have added less insult. I managed to edge in again and pointed out that for the costs to be lawful they must have been reasonably incurred in accordance with regulation 34 of the council tax regulations which stated also that costs were incurred proportionately with how much work had been done, i.e., there was a distinction made between the summons and liability order stage of recovery. I added that to base penalties on another authority's was not an acceptable way of setting them.

The Justices' Clerk confirmed what I'd said was correct, adding that the set procedure included the issue of a demand notice and then later preparations for court. At this juncture I stated my belief that most councils manipulated court costs purely as a way of generating more income; an opinion reinforced, having read documents detailing costs reviews where invariably, increases had been proposed to generate income, or as a means of prompting earlier payment. No instances had it been detailed that their incurred costs had risen, let alone supporting evidence justifying it. I brought up the 1.13 million which the council claims is the total annual budget for council tax recovery, focussing on the 100K+ allocated to the council's Control & Monitoring operations. The plan was to highlight the apparent lack of monitoring brought about by a Freedom of Information request, revealing over 3,000 liability orders being obtained for an initial debt of less than 50 over the last five years. The council's chief executive said all accounts were checked before being passed to the enforcement stage and only included amounts over 50. The argument was reinforced by emphasising three of these were obtained for just a penny. The prosecution then made the declaration that the authority does not summons for small amounts and contradicted what the chief executive had stated, by saying 10 was the minimum amount for which an account can be summonsed. He then described a scenario which would account for negligible amounts outstanding, as those revealed in the Freedom of Information request. He claimed that although 10 is the minimum summonsable amount, the situation arises were liability orders may still be granted for less than this, when for example an amount less than the summonsed total is paid to an account before the liability order is granted. The Magistrate then returned to his own fantasy world and began talking about how a democratically elected body had set these costs and unfortunately that was how it was. It seems outrageous that someone given responsibility of carrying out a judicial function is permitted to favour make-believe over the relevant aspects of law put before him. At around 11:45 the Magistrates retired to consider their decision. Within 5 minutes they'd returned to deliver the verdict which marked the continuation of the Oscar-winning performance. Whilst struggling to conceal his excitement the bench chairman was building to the point where finally, he could reveal what he'd had to keep to himself throughout the charade. He gave an assurance he had thoroughly read the submitted evidence, though his manner gave out signals that he was going to savour drawing out the final part. So, he continued to elaborate on the evidence I'd submitted in advance of the hearing. I'd twigged early on in the proceedings that what was happening was completely bogus. He was however, enjoying the role he'd been assigned in this theatre production. The written evidence amounted to forty or so pages and should have been more than enough to ensure a number of officers at North East Lincolnshire council saw out their days detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

He drew out his final some more and commented on how comprehensively the submitted document had been researched; even praising the work and presentation. It seemed evident to me however, that there was an ulterior motive for why he was demonstrating such positivity in regards the submitted paperwork. I'm sure he fancied himself as a Columbo figure as he tried to create an air of anticipation, it was obvious he had something up his sleeve. Perhaps he was building-up expectation that he was going to deliver a fair judgement based on the facts presented to him. What I'm sure he really wanted by doing this was to maximise the impact of adding insult to injury when in the final twist to his little game he would find in the council's favour, despite all the work preparing the evidence and the council's inability to provide supporting evidence for the claim of costs. He finally quit the charade and cut to the chase. In true Columbo style, he began explaining how his detective skills had been applied to filter out from the mountain of paperwork, a paragraph which he would exploit to invalidate the evidence. The paragraph he'd found and single out was:

This is almost certainly a revenue scam. The true costs incurred by the authority are clearly a fraction of those dishonestly being claimed through the court. It is also clear North East Lincs residents charged with these costs, are being exploited by the Magistrates' court and council's joint heist operation.
He smarmily read this out, fully expecting me to be devastated. I disappointed him I think by casually acknowledging that I had in fact written this and was wondering what point he was making. After drawing attention to the Royal Coat of Arms and reminding of the fact it was a symbol of the Crown, he revealed that the point he was making, was he had determined it to be contempt of court. He then proceeded to lecture on how Magistrates take an oath to act impartially and treat everyone fairly. This had evidently been a bare faced lie with his obvious demonstration of bias towards the council. He finally came to the conclusion. He said, "putting the contempt of court issue to one side and taking all the evidence into account I've determined the costs are reasonable." It seemed as though he was using this as leverage to justify dismissing my evidence. I felt blackmailed in the sense he was prepared to overlook the contempt aspect if I ignored his blatant disregard for the facts and error in judgement. Perhaps this was his way of discouraging me from appealing his decision to the High Court. He continued with unbelievable smarminess and stated that he would be granting the authority a liability order. Then, with the biggest condescending, pompous, arrogant, conceited grin on his face he said "now there's just the remaining matter of how you're going to pay it". My response was "I won't be paying it", which provoked him to threaten imprisonment if I didn't.

I responded to his threat of a custodial sentence, firstly by accurately describing his demeanour followed by a reminder that he was not adhering to the appropriate role a Magistrate should follow. He then warned me about my use of language, at which point the Justices' Clerk stood up and advised the Magistrate that his function was to grant (or otherwise) the liability order and was now the for the council to determine how it would be enforced. When he'd calmed down, I asked the bench if they'd considered the justified and properly itemised 9,000 costs I'd submitted which had so far been ignored. I thought it beneficial to add they were much less outrageous than the council's where hundreds of thousands of pounds are usually rubber stamped. He responded by saying he had, and went into some unfathomable dialogue about why he would not be awarding any. He'd taken it upon himself to classify me as self employed, which somehow played a key role in his ridiculous logic. There was nothing he was saying that I recognised from the English language, so I stopped him to say I had no idea what he was taking about. With this he smugly said "well you wouldn't do would you". I'm unclear what the Magistrate or I said after this but the Clerk thought it necessary to get up again and calm things down, at which point I stated I'd better leave and the Clerk agreed I should. I did state however that I would be taking things further. That, it turns out, in the case of a liability order, involves challenging the decision through the High Court. After leaving the courtroom I thought it best to obtain names of the two Magistrates and Clerk to the Justices. A simple matter landed me having another brush with security. I approached the Usher I'd dealt with earlier to obtain names. Before I said a word she'd called security as she claimed I'd been rude to her earlier. This was not unlike a carry-on movie; I said something I thought was to myself but witnessed by another of her colleagues. Consequently I was being ganged up on again. By this time both security officers were on the scene. I explained that the court staff were causing unnecessary trouble and I simply wanted to know the names of the Magistrates. They gave me the run-around sending me first to the reception then enquiries. The woman at enquiries refused to tell me and supposedly asked a legal adviser who confirmed that any correspondence would require only the date, time and courtroom number. There was no way on earth these people were going to give out details so I called it a day and got out of the circus.