How long does a council tax debt last for? This is a common question that debtors who owe their local municipal ask. 

The answer to the question depends on where you live in the UK.

Read on to learn more about council tax debts and the timeframe the council has to collect the money you owe – as well as related common questions. 

What are council tax arrears?

Council tax arrears are the council tax payments you have missed in the past. This may be due to simply forgetting to pay, financial hardship or because you were wrongfully claiming a local council reduced rate when not eligible. 

If you have arrears, the council will send a letter asking you to pay in 7 days. If you don’t, they could then ask for a full year’s council tax. And if you still refuse, the council may take legal action at the county court. 

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How long can a council tax debt be pursued?

You can only be chased for council tax debts for so long before they can no longer be enforced by the council or the courts. The duration of time you can be chased for unpaid council tax is different whether you live in England and Wales or if you live in Scotland.

We discuss the details below…

When does council tax debt expire in England and Wales?

If your council tax debt is owed to one of the local authorities outside of Scotland, the debt can be enforced until it becomes Statute Barred, which is usually six years. By ‘enforced’, we mean requested payment, taken to court or having to deal with council tax bailiffs.

The Limitations Act 1980 states that some debts outside of Scotland cannot be enforced after six years elapses from a) the debt originating, b) the last payment on the debt, or c) last acknowledging the debt in writing – whichever was most recent. 

The debt at this stage becomes statute barred, which means you cannot be taken to court and made to pay. If you cannot be taken to court then you can never be forced to pay from a legal perspective. And the local municipal must stop requesting payment. 

We have a statute barred template letter you can use to make them stop asking for payment if this applies.

The reason this law exists is to protect the courts from becoming overwhelmed with older cases.

Can council tax debt be chased for longer than six years?

The Statute Barred law applies unless even if have already been instructed to pay the council tax arrears from a court judge. In the case of council tax, this is known as a liability order. 

How long is a council tax liability order valid for?

A liability order has no expiry date. But the order is only to enforce the debt and does not override the debt potentially becoming Statute Barred. 

Nevertheless, try to reach a decision early to avoid court costs and bailiff fees. They can be very expensive so it’s best to confront the debt as quickly as possible at this stage. 

When does a council tax debt expire in Scotland?

The period of time you can be chased for a council tax bill in Scotland, known as the prescription period, is 20 years. For this reason, it is near impossible for a local council in Scotland not to be able to recover these debts through the courts in time.

However, it could still happen if the local municipal has not been able to track you down. 

Scotland does have an equivalent to the Statute Barred rule, but the period a debt can be chased is one year shorter at five years. Unfortunately, the types of debts that are included in Scotland’s Statute Barred law do not include council tax arrears. 

How long before council debts are written off?

A local authority tax debt is legally unenforceable if it becomes Statute Barred after six years or the equivalent in Scotland after 20 years. 

However, in these cases the debt is not automatically written off. The debt exists but you just cannot be chased for it any longer. 

You might want to ask your local council to write off the debt at this point. If they cannot recover it using enforcement agents anymore, they might just write it off. 

Can I write off council tax debts?

These debts can be written off as part of some debt solutions. For example, low income earners and people on jobseeker’s allowance or some other benefits can typically use a Debt Relief Order to get debt relief for 12 months – and then wipe all their debts at the end of that year. 

Another debt solution that can wipe a council debt over time, although you will have to pay some of the money back, is an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA). Your local council would have to agree to include the debt in the IVA. 

Paying your council tax bills FAQs

Do council tax debts expire?

Council tax debt doesn’t expire, but it can become legally unenforceable after six years or 20 years depending on where you live. They can still expire if you have received a liability order from the county court. If you are unsure, contact a debt charity.

How can I make a council tax payment?

You can make payments to councils by setting up a direct debit so the local council can take money from your bank automatically. You can also pay the money over the phone and online with credit cards and debit cards. 

Can you be sent to prison for council tax debts?

In extremely rare situations, you can be sent to prison for not paying your debt after being instructed to by a judge. The debt becomes your legal obligation, so you shouldn’t ignore it at this stage. 

Where can I get debt advice?

Contact charities for free to take advantage of their free debt advice. 

Is council tax a priority debt?

Yes, it is classed as a priority because councils can take you to the magistrate’s court. 

How can I get a council tax reduction?

Reductions are available to people who live alone or with someone not classed as an applicable adult, such as diplomats, full-time students, people with some disabilities and some other people. Contact the registered office to see if you can reduce your payment. You might be able to backdate the reduction if applicable and get credit back. 

Will the council send bailiffs?

If you do not pay after a liability order has been issued, the local municipal can use a bailiff to collect the money owed. They will send you a letter as a notice to pay within 7 days. If you do not, they can come to your home and take control of valuable goods. 

Do not shy away from the final notice as paying or agreeing a repayment plan (CGA) will help you avoid expensive bailiff charges. Bailiffs charge £75 just for the first contact and this rises to hundreds of pounds for subsequent visits and services. The bottom line? Don’t ignore bailiffs!

How else can they enforce the liability order?

A creditor might use another method to enforce the debt after having the liability order approved. Another method is an attachment of earnings, which is a way for the council to take a payment from your income or benefits, such as income support allowance, pension credit or universal credit. 

Can I spread out my debt?

You can spread out your debt by agreeing to a payment plan with the council. Some councils have a dedicated phone number to make these arrangements. Contact them as soon as possible if you have missed payments. 

Can I complain about my council tax bill?

You should direct your complaint to the local municipal using the number for their registered address. If they do not respond satisfactorily, you can then take your complaint to the Financial Conduct Authority.

Will the Financial Conduct Authority be fair?

Yes, the FCA must be fair and impartial when dealing with all complaints. 

Get help with your council debt!

If you need help with a bill from your local municipal, you can always call them directly for help. They can help you pay your council tax and understand what is owed and when. 

Or you may prefer to get debt advice on the money you owe from a debt charity registered in England. 

And stick around with MoneyNerd!

And don’t forget that we at MoneyNerd have plenty of informative guides and answers to common questions to do with debt.

Come back to us soon to know your rights and get out of debt the easier way!

About the author

Scott Nelson

Scott Nelson is a financial services expert, with over 10 years’ experience in the industry, including 6 years in FCA regulated companies. Read more
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