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i The advice on this page applies to residents in England and Wales only.

What’s a liability order?

If you don’t pay council tax or child maintenance, the local council or Child Maintenance Service (CMS) / Child Support Agency (CSA) can apply to the Magistrates' court for a liability order. Failure to comply with a liability order has serious consequences.

Creditors ask for a liability order to be issued so they can use court-appointed debt collection agents, and take further legal action to recover the money they’re owed.

Initially, you’ll be ordered to make payment arrangements or have money taken directly from your wages, using a ‘deduction of earnings order’.

In Scotland, there is a similar process called the "Summary warrant procedure".

If you’re worried about a liability order being issued, it may be that you need debt help. Our advice is free, personalised and confidential.

What can happen if I don’t pay what I owe?

If you don’t pay what you owe, enforcement agents (bailiffs) or sheriff officers may visit your home and can take goods that can be sold to pay towards your arrears.

Liability orders can be issued across the UK. There are similar rules and penalties with some variations, due to the different legal systems.

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Liability orders and child maintenance arrears

The CMS / CSA can apply to the court for a liability order to recover any unpaid child maintenance. There’s no ‘statute of limitations’, which means the claim could go back many years.

In rare cases, if you don't pay your arrears after a liability order, you could have your driving license revoked, or even be sent to prison.

Read our guide to dealing with child maintenance arrears

Liability orders and council tax arrears

If you’ve missed payments, the local authority can apply to the court for a liability order seven days after you’ve been issued with a reminder or final demand.

The liability order allows the council to take further action against you. You can't be sent to prison for not paying council tax in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. in England, the power to imprison still exists, but is rarely used. 

Read our guide to dealing with council tax arrears.

Dealing with liability orders

What happens when a creditor applies for a liability order?

You’re issued with a court summons detailing:

  • The time and place the court hearing will be held
  • The amount of council tax or child maintenance you owe
  • The period of time the arrears cover
  • Details of how much you should pay

You need to check all the details in the summons are correct, and contact the creditor if you disagree with anything stated in the liability order.

It’s very important you respond to the court summons, whether you plan to attend the hearing or not. There will be a court form for you to respond with the summons letter.

How do I respond to a liability order court summons?

You don’t have to attend the court hearing. But if you do, you’ll have the opportunity to explain why you’ve not been able to pay.

At this point you’re normally obliged to pay the court costs. So it’s definitely better to make payment arrangements before you get to this stage.

What if I’m unable to pay?

The court will take into account valid reasons for not being able to pay. You’ll need to provide evidence in writing.

Tell the court and provide evidence about:

  • Any problems you’ve had with the bank account used to pay the debt. You’ll need written evidence from the bank
  • Being made redundant. You’ll need a letter from your former employer confirming the details of your redundancy
  • Any medical problems that have affected your ability to pay what you owe. You’ll need to provide medical certificates

Do you know about the debt and mental health evidence form (DMHEF)? This is a form that can help your creditors understand any mental health issues you may be experiencing.

Can bailiffs force entry with a liability order?

No. A liability order does not give a bailiff the right to force entry to your home on initial entry. For child support or council tax debts, enforcement agents can force entry if they are re-entering to inspect or remove goods which have been taken into control.

How much is a liability order?

The liability order covers your arrears and court costs for making the order. This amount is separate to any ongoing payments you’re making.

Can you go to jail for not paying council tax or child maintenance?

This can happen, but it’s rare, and a last resort after all other ways to recover the money you owe have been explored.

You can't be imprisoned for not paying council tax in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In England, the power to imprison still exists, but is rarely used.

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