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i This page applies to England, Wales and Scotland

Council tax arrears

What if I don’t pay my council tax?

If you don’t pay your council tax, your local authority can continue to take further action to recover the money you owe them. This may involve taking money directly from wages or benefits or getting an order to instruct court-appointed debt collectors.

signpost iconIn Northern Ireland households pay rates rather than council tax

If you’re in Northern Ireland, read our guide to dealing with rates arrears.

How local authorities collect unpaid council tax

If you don’t pay your council tax, the local authority can collect the money you owe by:

  • 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. A maximum of £3.70 a week can be taken from income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance or pension credit. A maximum of 5% of your standard allowance can be deducted from universal credit
  • Applying for a liability order that will appoint enforcement agents

In Scotland, council tax covers sewage and water charges. These must be paid, even if you're eligible for a council tax reduction.

Find out more about court action for council tax debt in England & Wales and Scotland

Other actions councils can take to chase unpaid council tax

If you still don’t pay your council tax debts, the local authority has the right to take further action.

  • 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 and Wales
  • Send you to prison for up to three months (only if you live in England). This is extremely rare, and only used where someone deliberately refuses to pay their council tax.

The local authority can’t send you to prison if any of the other methods above can be used instead

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Frequently asked questions about council tax debts

How long can you be chased for a council tax debt?

Most types of debt become ‘statute barred’ or ‘prescribed’ after a period of time, if the creditor takes too long to recover the money owed. When a debt is statute barred or prescribed it effectively means the debt is written off because you can’t be forced to repay it.

  • In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, debts are statute barred after 6 years
  • In Scotland, debts are prescribed after five years

This doesn’t happen automatically and if a liability order or summary warrant is currently in place, your debt may remain active. Find out more about how debts are written off.

Can bailiffs force entry for council tax?

A bailiff in England or Wales can only force entry to your home if they have previously entered and you’ve signed a controlled goods agreement. This allows them to enter your home and take goods if you don’t make the agreed payments. Find out more about bailiff rights and powers.

Can I go to jail for not paying council tax?

In England, if you don’t pay what you’ve been ordered to pay by the court you could be imprisoned for up to three months. In practice, this is a last resort and very rare. Learn about which debts could lead you to being sent to prison.

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Council tax court summons

England and Wales

The liability 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.

  • If your local authority starts court action, you’ll get a summons in the post. This will give you a date and time for a court hearing. An extra charge will be added to your bill at this point.
  • If you get a letter about council tax court action, contact us for advice
  • At the hearing, a magistrate will issue a liability order


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 to your bill.

If you get a letter about council tax court action, contact us for advice straight away.

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 to ask 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 use our online debt advice tool to work out how much you can afford.

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

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

Sheriff officers can take goods from outside or inside your home, but this is only as a last resort if there are no other ways to collect the arrears.

Get help if you’re struggling to pay your council tax

If you've missed council tax payments or you're struggling to pay arrears, take two minutes to answer a few simple questions, so we can understand the best way to help you.