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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Adviser: Rates & housing benefit problems

Last year Alison came to Housing Rights Service for help.  She was being threatened with bankruptcy over rates arrears of almost £7000.  I took on her case and here's what happened. 

Alison’s story

Alison’s a homeowner who went through an incredibly difficult time when both her parents died within a short space of time. After her parents’ deaths, Alison was increasingly unable to cope and ended up having a breakdown. She was hospitalised a number of times to receive treatment for her depression. Thankfully, Alison’s doing much better now, but she still takes medication for her illness.

During this time Alison received disability benefits and also received housing benefit to help with her rates.    

I wanted to see what we could do to postpone the legal action and work out a repayment plan.  I got in touch with Land & Property Services to ask them if they’d adjourn the hearing to allow us some time to work on Alison’s case.  

Housing benefit problems and writing off debt

It turned out that non-dependent deductions had been made against Alison’s adult children, despite the fact that they’d all been in full time education when living with her. After digging in to this issue a bit further, it turned out that Alison had been entitled to over £2,600 of rates relief which she never received.   LPS should only use bankruptcy where the arrear is over £5000, so getting this amount written off meant LPS withdrew the bankruptcy motion.

Alison and I sat down and looked at her finances to see what she could reasonably afford to pay each month.  On her limited income, I felt that she could really only commit to paying £30 towards the arrears each month and made this proposal to LPS.  I was a bit gutted when they responded by saying that Alison would need to pay £525 each month until the arrears were paid off.  LPS hadn’t properly followed their own recovery guidance when dealing with Alison so I made a formal complaint.   I also asked LPS to remove any court fees from Alison’s arrear and to establish if any of her debt was statute barred.

The complaint letter led to LPS writing off a further £1500. LPS suggested that Alison make payments of £79 per month to address the arrear.  After discussing her options Alison felt that this payment was manageable with help from her kids.

This was a positive result - the bankruptcy proceedings were stopped and almost £4200 of the alleged debt was written off.  Don’t get me wrong - this wasn’t an easy case to deal with and took a lot of legwork, but ultimately it was hugely rewarding to be able to sort things out for this vulnerable woman.

Tips and resources

  • With a public body, always check for official guidance and see if this has been followed.
  • Check if debts are statute barred. 
  • Make sure you know how to assess a client’s income and work out repayment proposals.  Housing Rights service can provide tailored training to your staff on Dealing with Housing Debt or you can purchase our Professional Resource on Dealing with Housing Debt.


Tagged In

Practical tips, Affordability, Adviser

This article was written on 28 June 2013. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.