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i The advice on this page applies to residents in England, Wales and Scotland only.

Council tax arrears. What to do if you can’t pay council tax debt.

Your council tax bill is a 'priority debt', as there can be serious consequences if you can’t pay your arrears.

Council tax makes up around a quarter of local authority incomes in England, Wales and Scotland. Most households have to pay council tax, but the amount you'll pay depends on the value of your house, your age and income, and who else lives with you.

Local authorities have extra legal powers to collect council tax and they often act quickly if payments are missed. This could result in bailiffs (or sheriff officers in Scotland) visiting your property. This means council tax arrears are treated as a priority debt.

If you fall behind with your council tax it's important to contact the council and try to make arrangements to clear your arrears. Send them a copy of your budget showing your income and outgoings to show them your situation. If you need help with this or you're struggling to deal with the arrears, we'd recommend getting free, expert debt advice as soon as possible.

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How is council tax paid?

An annual bill will be sent in March each year showing how much you need to pay.

You can spread the cost over 12 months by paying in weekly or monthly instalments. Council tax bills often show payments over 10 months but your local authority must let you pay over 12 months if you ask.

If your council tax bill was sent out later than April, for example because you’ve moved house, you’ll have a shorter time to pay it. The bill must be paid off in full before the end of the following March.

What are council tax bands?

Council tax is charged in bands based on the value of your house in 1991. More expensive houses are in a higher band and pay a higher annual council tax bill. Band A is the cheapest and band H or I is the most expensive. Your band will be shown on your council tax bill.

If you think your house was put in the wrong band, you can ask for it to be reassessed. You can save money if your house is changed to a lower council tax band, but this isn’t guaranteed, and if you’re unlucky the band could even go up. There’s lots of useful information about this on MoneySavingExpert.com.

Am I entitled to council tax reduction and relief?

There are some ways to reduce your council tax bill, you may qualify for council tax relief:

  • You’re entitled to a 25% single person discount if you live on your own. Some people aren't counted when working out council tax, so if you live with a full-time student, apprentice or someone who is 'severely mentally impaired' you may still qualify for a 25% discount.

  • If you’re on a low income, you may qualify for council tax reduction where your bill is reduced based on how much you earn. All local authorities have different rules for who qualifies.

  • If you’re above pension age, you’ll get extra council tax reduction.

  • If someone in your house is disabled and the property has been adapted, you may qualify to have your council tax reduced by one band.

Complete our online benefits calculator to find out if you’re entitled to any help with your council tax.

If your circumstances change during the year, make sure you tell your local authority so they can send you an updated bill.

What happens if I am in arrears or miss payments?

If you’re more than 14 days late paying a council tax instalment you’ll be sent a reminder letter.

If you make the payment within seven days of the reminder letter you can continue paying your council tax in instalments.

But if you don’t make the payment within seven days, your local authority can ask you to pay the whole council tax for the rest of the year. You have another seven days to pay the whole amount, then the local authority can take you to court. The court process differs depending on where you live.

Council tax court action in England & Wales

If your local authority starts court action, you’ll get a summons in the post which will give you a date and time for a court hearing. An extra charge will be added at this point.

If you get a letter about council tax court action, call us for advice.

At the hearing, a magistrate will issue a liability order. This order gives the local authority permission to take further action to collect the unpaid council tax.

You can attend the hearing and tell the magistrate if a mistake has been made, or if your council tax has been paid in full before the hearing date. You should keep in touch with the local authority before the hearing and ask them to agree to you paying the arrears in instalments.

Once a liability order has been issued, your local authority has several options to collect the unpaid council tax. The most common ways are:

  • Using bailiffs or 'enforcement agents'
  • Taking payments straight from your wages using an attachment of earnings. This will be a fixed percentage of your take-home pay.
  • Taking payments from your benefits. £3.70 a week can be taken from income support, income based jobseekers allowance, income related employment and support allowance or pension credit.

They also have the following options, but these are rare and are only used as a last resort if there are no other ways to collect the debt:

  • Securing the debt to your home using a charging order if you owe more than £1,000
  • Make you bankrupt if you owe more than £5,000 in England or if you owe them more than £750 in Northern Ireland.
  • Send you to prison for up to three months. This is extremely rare, and only used where someone is deliberately refusing to pay their council tax. The local authority can’t send you to prison if any of the other methods above could be used instead.
Council tax court action in Scotland

If your local authority starts court action, they’ll apply to the sheriff court for a summary warrant, which is part of the diligence process. A fee of 10% of the outstanding council tax will also be added.

If you get a letter about council tax court action, call our Helpline (Freephone, including mobile) for advice.

You’ll then be sent a charge for payment letter asking you to pay the amount due within 14 days.

The charge for payment comes with a form you can fill in and return asking for a time to pay order. You must complete this form straight away and send it the sheriff’s office with an offer of payment. It’s important your offer of payment is realistic, so call us or complete our online Debt Remedy tool to work out how much you can afford.

If the local authority accepts your offer of payment, no more action will be taken as long as you make the payments you’ve agreed.

If you don’t apply for a time to pay order, or if you don’t make the payments you’ve agreed, your local authority has several options to collect the unpaid council tax. The most common ways are:

  • Take payments straight from your wages using an earnings arrestment
  • Take money straight from your bank account using a bank arrestment

They also have the following options, but these should only used as a last resort if there are no other ways to collect the arrears:

  • Sheriff officers taking goods from outside or inside your home
  • If you owe more than £3,000, sequestration (Scottish bankruptcy) could be an option

Can I complain if I think my council tax bill is wrong?

If you have any problems with council tax, contact your local authority first. You can make a complaint if you think you've been treated unfairly or your bill is wrong.

You must give your local authority eight weeks to reply to your complaint. If you're not happy with their reply, you can contact one of the following independent organisations who can give you more help and investigate your complaint.

Help with council tax debt

If you've missed council tax payments or you're struggling to pay arrears, get free debt help now before your local authority takes any further action.

You can use our anonymous Debt Remedy tool online, or call our free Helpline to talk to one of our expert advisors.

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