Thousands more people were hauled to the magistrates’ court in Sheffield yesterday in an ongoing city crackdown on non-payment of council tax.
Huge queues formed outside as a total of 3,500 cases was heard in six separate sessions across four different court rooms.
Sheffield Council and benefits contractor Capita took action as part of efforts to crack down on the problem of unpaid council tax – which totalled £8.8 million in the last year.
But members of Sheffield Benefit Justice Campaign, who offered advice at the court, accused the council of ‘frightening’ people with summonses when almost all cases ended up being dealt with by voluntary agreements.
The average sum owed was £172.
Only a few dozen cases – where people disputed the size of their bills - were heard by magistrates in a specially reserved court room.
Three other court rooms were occupied by council officials offering voluntary agreements.
One man who challenged his arrears had paid a lump sum in April to clear previous debts, and said he had set up a direct debit for the forthcoming year.
But the court heard the council had not taken any payments from his bank account.
Dave Jackson, solicitor for Sheffield Council and Capita, said: “We were dealing with around 3,500 cases through the day, each of whom owed an average of £172.
“There has been only a very small number of challenges – just nine in the morning session.”
Magistrates upheld liability in almost all cases except the man whose direct debits were not collected, which was deferred for investigation.
But Shirley Frost, of Sheffield Benefits Justice Campaign, said: “The court has been absolute chaos.
“It was horrendous, with so many people facing long queues to be seen.
“The queue took around 15 minutes just to get through security. Most people were being sent to three court rooms where they could make voluntary arrangements with council officials rather than to the magistrates.
“In a lot of cases, people said they had not received reminders from the council until the summonses came through.”
Fellow campaigner Tom Dolandson, of Sheffield Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts, added: “The council has been frightening a lot of people.
“I would question why it is necessary to send summonses to so many people – yet then just have them making arrangements with council officials when they get to court.”
Coun Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council cabinet member for finance, insisted: “The people summonsed have received warnings previously.”
He added: “We have taken similar action previously and will continue to do so.
“We are offering help and support and people in difficulty are being referred to our discretionary support fund.”