HUNDREDS of worried residents descended on a Sheffield court yesterday - after the council issued 5,000 summonses accusing people of not paying council tax.
Tempers were frayed as men and women of all ages, pregnant mums with pushchairs, and students queued for hours in the cramped magistrates’ court basement.
The wait was so long, officials handed out numbered raffle tickets to marshal the crowds.
Each resident had received the same letter - dated January 11, but most of which arrived only yesterday or Thursday - alleging non-payment of council tax.
It ordered recipients to appear at court yesterday afternoon, and threatened: “If you do not, you will be proceeded against as if you had.”
Among those who turned up worried were people up-to-date with payments - and others exempt in the first place.
Many said they’d rung the council’s telephone helpline in the morning but were kept on hold for up to 40 minutes before being cut off.
New mum Altine Bootha-King, aged 22, from Southey Green, said: “I was astonished when I received my letter saying I owed £500 plus £100 charges. I paid my council tax last September.
“I got through on the helpline after half an hour and was told I didn’t owe anything. This has caused me unnecessary hassle and stress.”
Sheffield Council apologised and promised an urgent investigation.
But some residents said they had been frightened.
Laura Morley, 29, from Crookes, said: “It’s absolute chaos. They shouldn’t be causing all these people this amount of stress. It’s a very threatening letter.
“It’s dated January 11 but I only received mine on Thursday.”
Sheffield Hallam University law student Ian Hughes, 20, of Abbeydale Road, agreed: “It’s a very intimidating letter. I rang the helpline but was cut off after 37 minutes on hold.
“I kept ringing for the next two hours, then decided to come down.
“I’m exempt from council tax because I’m a student.”
Housemate Ben Lyons, also 20, said: “It claims we owe £745.09 plus £45 in charges and £3 court fees. It’s a farce.”
Another man told The Star: “It’s ludicrous. I am exempt, but got a letter at 1.30pm saying I was due in court minutes later owing £795.
“I heard they processed 181 people yesterday, and were planning another session today - there was a guffawing of laughter when they announced that.”
One city solicitor, who received a summons himself, said: “Mine relates to £181 in council tax I paid two years ago.
“The summons isn’t legally effective anyway because they have to give 14 days’ notice before you appear in court. They’ve no power to compel people to pay even if they do owe.”
Munir Yaha, 34, of Burngreave Road, admitted he is in arrears. “I have got an outstanding balance, but I was told not to pay it - now I’ve received this saying I owe £500.
“It’s dated January 11 but I only received it yesterday.
“It’s ridiculous - I’ve been queuing for an hour.”
Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council cabinet member for finance, said: “We offer our sincere apologies to those affected.
“Capita, the company which manages Sheffield Council’s financial services, issued 5,000 court summonses in January. Somewhere there has obviously been a breakdown in the agreed processes of administrating some council tax receipts.
“I have asked officers and Capita to investigate as a matter of urgency, and report back to me by Tuesday.”