Joanna Kennedy talks about a new scheme for support in court in July’s issue of “Magistrate”

Lola is a nurse from Burundi where she was raped and tortured. Her husband was murdered and she was separated from her children. She fled to this country where she was granted asylum and eventually reunited with her children. She is extremely grateful for all the help that she has been given which she would like to repay by building a new and productive life for herself and her children, although she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She was housed by Hackney Council who are her landlords but the property is in fact in Islington. She applied for and was granted housing benefit but no-one told her about council tax or that she had to make a separate application for council tax benefit in Islington. Eventually, out of the blue she received a demand for £836 council tax. She obtained benefit backdated for six months but then faced a summons for £533 including costs.

Lola lives on a very low income and paying this sum would literally take food out of the children’s mouths. The benefits system recognises in principle that she cannot pay but in practice cannot help. Z2K is a charity which helps those on low incomes facing debt and summonses. She came to us on the brink of the hearing of the summons because she was terrified of going to court. We sent someone with her as a McKenzie Friend who arranged for the hearing to be adjourned. We then reminded the council of its power to remit tax under s13A  Local Government Finance Act 1992. Eventually it agreed to reduce the demand to £318 for which it still insisted on obtaining an order. A McKenzie Friend went with Lola to court again to discover that the council, having agreed the reduction, still sought £418, so the McKenzie Friend helped challenge this: without her an incorrect order would have been made.

McKenzie Friends Project

Lola’s story is extreme but it shows that there are people who face council tax summonses who are not at fault, who are terrified of going to court and who need help. Councils bring computerised lists of alleged council tax defaulters to court seeking liability orders. Sometimes those applications need challenging for all kinds of reasons but most unrepresented litigants, especially those with difficulties with English or literacy or with mental health issues, are incapable of doing that without help.

Lola was referred to us before the hearing but many more simply turn up at court frightened and bewildered. There may be good reasons why the claim should be investigated but anyone with articulacy problems or lack of confidence is unlikely to persuade the council tax officer not to steam ahead to obtain an order and even less likely to persuade the court that there are issues that need scrutiny.

The recent cuts in legal aid and to advice centres budgets mean that there is no publicly funded advice available for any kind of debt including council tax.

Z2K joined with LawWorks (the umbrella body for solicitors’ pro bono work) and the College of Law to devise a ‘duty’ volunteer McKenzie Friends scheme which will provide a McKenzie Friend for all those who turn up to court facing a council tax summons. The McKenzie Friend will help negotiate a manageable outcome with the council officer and there will only be a dispute in court if a sensible outcome cannot be agreed.

We will start with a six-month pilot scheme in Brent Magistrates’ Court from September 2011 dealing with Brent’s Council tax list. The ‘Friends’ will be law students whom Z2K will train. They will be supervised, we hope, by retired magistrates who might be interested in this work, which we intend to develop into dealing with other issues in due course. Any retired magistrates reading this who would be interested in helping, please contact me at the e-mail address below.

The Brent judges have been very encouraging and we believe this scheme should be welcomed with open arms by all magistrates. It should improve the functioning of the council tax list and produce more just outcomes. We also propose an information campaign which will mean that more of those summonsed will attend if they know there will be help available.

Without a McKenzie Friend, Lola would have suffered more stress which would have impeded her recovery and damaged her children. This scheme will provide similar help for all the other Lolas out there.

Joanna Kennedy is the chief executive of Z2K. Contact her via e-mail on: