More than 37,000 people in Preston have been prosecuted for falling behind on their council tax in the past four years.
Up to one in six households have been issued court summonses by Preston Council, according to figures released to the Evening Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
The data shows that 37,243 people were issued with court summonses for being late with their council tax payments between 2006 and 2009.
But some residents and a group representing taxpayers say the council’s approach is too “draconian” and is exacerbating problems for people experiencing financial hardship.
Each time a person is summonsed they are hit with a £92 charge, on top of the tax they already owe. The costs alone have generated more than £2m for the council and more than £110,000 in fees for Preston Magistrates’ Court during the four year period.
A resident, who was summonsed earlier in the year for a late payment, said people are not given enough time to respond to reminders before a summons lands on the doorstep.
The taxpayer, who asked not to be named, said: “I have paid tax all my life and have never been in trouble with the law. But sometimes you forget about a bill - everybody has done it.
“I didn’t pay a council tax bill earlier this year because of a mix up with changing banks. The next thing I knew I had received a summons to go to court and had to pay an extra charge on top of the tax I owed.
“It was totally unnecessary. I’ve not missed a payment for more than 20 years and when I make one mistake I’m treated like a criminal.”
Emma Boon, a campaign director at the lobby group Taxpayers Alliance, said: “Of course people should endeavour to pay their council tax on time but some people, particularly older taxpayers, simply cannot do that.
“These are not the people who should be punished. Councils should be going after the hard core minority of people who refuse to pay their taxes and help those who are struggling to pay on time.
“Council tax has risen and risen over the past 10 years making it more and more difficult for people to pay. Clobbering these people with a £92 charge is not the way to solve the issue.”
A summons to the magistrates’ court is issued after a reminder letter about an unpaid bill. If the bill is not settled within 14 days, the name or names of liable people are handed over to the court.
The household then has to pay the full amount for the entire financial year, plus a £92 summons cost. Alternatively they can fight the bill in court in front of magistrates.
If magistrates grant a liability order, the council has a range of powers to collect the money, including taking cash direct from wage packets or involving bailiffs.
A spokesman for Preston Council said: “Preston Council charges the reasonable cost of administering recovery action, and the charge made to the council by the magistrates court.
“Recovery costs take into account work done by both the council tax department and the contact centre. The council is expected to spend around £590,000 on council tax recovery this year.
“This cost is spread across an estimate of 10,000 summonses being issued, resulting in a charge of £59. All of this charge goes towards the costs that the council incurs.
“The council also pays the Magistrates Court £3 for the issue of each summons, and the costs for obtaining a liability order are a further £34.00, so the total cost charged this year is £92.00.
“The council does not make a profit from these charges and each year we review the level of costs charged to ensure that they are not excessive.”