A disability rights campaigner from Penryn has accused Cornwall Council of persecuting thousands of the poorest people in the county by dragging them to court for non-payment of council tax for which they were not liable last year.

Michelle Kent, of Greenwood Crescent, Penryn, says there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of benefit claimants summonsed to court since Cornwall was granted the power to determine for itself how to apply tax discounts to various groups earlier this year.

Cornwall Council this week told the Packet that so far this financial year it had obtained 7,749 liability orders. Of those previously receiving 100% council tax benefit, 1,735 are currently at the final notice stage, with 3,418 reaching the summons stage.

Ms Kent, of Greenwood Crescent, Penryn, said the surge in court cases was a stain on Cornwall Council’s claim to be a “caring” local authority.

“It is an absolute disgrace,” she told the Packet. “Cornwall Council has made a decision about which groups of people should be made to suffer – and they have attacked some of the poorest in society.

“Everyone says this should not be happening – but the reality is that it is happening. The council has been given the freedom to make this decision, but has got it horribly wrong.”

Ms Kent, who has multiple disabilities, is registered as disabled and in receipt of benefits, said she had never had to pay council tax before and would rather go to prison than have to pay it now.

In Cornwall 19,945 people who previously had their council tax paid in full are now being asked to pay at least 25 per cent. Most are paying – but some have not been able to.

Councillor Alex Folkes, the Council’s cabinet member responsible for financial issues and who himself was recently the subject of three successive council tax liability orders, said he was monitoring the impact of the new scheme and welfare reforms in general in Cornwall.

“The Council recognised the potential impact of the changes on people on low incomes and set up a £1.1m safety net to provide support for people in the greatest need. So far 1,003 people have received support from this fund. The authority has also given an additional £150,000 to the CAB to enable them to provide information and advice to people affected by the new scheme.

“There were 38,290 people who had previously been in receipt of full council tax benefit. These included 18,345 pensioners who are not affected by the scheme by law and so continue to receive 100% support against council tax liability and 19,945 working age people who have lost at least 25% of the council tax reduction.

“Of those previously receiving 100% council tax benefit, 1,735 are currently at the final notice stage, with 3,418 reaching the summons stage.”

He said that overall, the total number of liability orders obtained against all households represented only a 1.1% increase on the same period last year.

The council has introduced an on-line benefits calculator to help people understand if they are entitled to a discount. It seeks detailed information about other benefit income, wages, savings, size of home, illnesses and disabilities, and other people living in the home.

The increase in applications for council tax liability orders against benefit claimants has brought a huge increase in the workload for Cornwall’s magistrates, with many of the council tax defaulters summonsed actually attending court for the first time in their lives – unaware that attendance is not strictly necessary. In a typical example last month, 1,079 liability orders were issued at Truro magistrates court in one day on behalf of Cornwall Council to people who hadn’t paid their council tax.

Many were first-timers unable to foot the bill.

Jason Simmons, 46, from Redruth, was summonsed to court for non-payment.

He said: “I’ve managed to pay £30 of it, but there is no way I’ll be able to pay the rest.”

Mr Simmons, who is on Disability Living Allowance and Income Support, gets £280 every fortnight.