Since council tax replaced the community charge in 1992, thousands of people in England and Wales have been committed to prison for not having paid their council tax.
Unlike most other civil debts, people who fail to pay their council tax can be brought before criminal courts and imprisoned if the Magistrates find they are guilty of “culpable neglect” or a “wilful refusal” to pay. Despite having committed no actual crime, these people are at risk of losing their liberty.
Even more worryingly, evidence now shows that year after year there have been significant numbers of people being unlawfully imprisoned for non-payment of council tax.
Take Melanie Woolcock, a single mother caring for an elderly neighbor. She struggled to make ends meet after she lost her job and fell behind on her council tax payments. She was not being neglectful or refusing to pay, but despite this, was sentenced to 81 days in prison. Finding support from the Centre for Criminal Appeals, her release on bail was secured and, subsequently, her imprisonment ruled unlawful.
Melanie then brought a claim for judicial review challenging the system that had resulted in her unlawful jailing. This forced the High Court to acknowledge between 9.5%-18% of people committed to prison for council tax non-payment are sent there unlawfully. This is a conservative estimate as it does not include other reasons why such imprisonments have been found to be unlawful, such as where no means assessment was conducted or where the sentence was over the legal maximum of 90 days. Imprisonment, particularly for short periods of time and when unlawfully issued, has a hugely detrimental effect on a person’s life, and even more so for vulnerable women.
Between 2010 and 2017, a total of 692 people were sent to prison for not paying their council tax. That means that, at the very least, between 66 and 125 people were jailed unlawfully in the last seven years.
This is likely to be one of the largest mass miscarriages of justice in British history.
Several attempts at legislative change have proved fruitless. It is time to eradicate this draconian policy.
We call on the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales the Right Honourable the Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government the Right Honourable Sajid Javid MP and the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice the Right Honourable David Gauke MP to:
1. Abolish regulation 47(3) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992, that allows the committal to prison for council tax non-payment.
2. Review the court files of all those imprisoned for council tax debt in England and Wales between 2010 and 2017 to identify those who may have been wrongfully jailed and to inform them of this fact.
3. Create an ex gratia award scheme, overseen by independent adjudicators, to afford compensation to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for council tax debt.
4. Ensure that in all courts where proceedings for council tax debt are under way, defendants are told of their right to free legal assistance, pursuant to the decision of the European Court of Human rights in Benham v UK (1996) 22 EHRR 293.
Debt is not a crime. Let’s stop treating it like one.
Aaron J Dolan, Administrator, Criminal Bar Association
Abigail Wheatcroft, Caseworker, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Alistair Chisholm, Head of Advice Sector Policy and Partnerships, PayPlan
Amanda Weston QC, Barrister, Garden Court Chambers
Angela Rafferty QC, Chair, Criminal Bar Association
Anna Yearley, Executive Director, Reprieve
Baroness Hilary Armstrong of Hill Top
Baronness Martha Lane Fox of Soho, MBE
Cathy Stancer, Director, Lankelly Chase Foundation
Christopher Callender, Solicitor, Steel and Shamash
Christopher David, Counsel, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr
Christopher Henley QC, Vice Chair, Criminal Bar Association
Clive Stafford Smith, Founder, Reprieve
Daniel Martin, Head of Criminal Defence, Blaser Mills Law
Deborah Bowker, Solicitor, Steel and Shamash
Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor, Prisoners Advice Service
Donal Lawler, Barrister, Criminal Bar Association
Dr Dennis Eady, Cardiff School of Law and Politics
Dr Hannah King, Acting Director of Education & Assistant Professor of Criminology,
University of Durham
Dr Ivan Hill, Senior Fellow, The Higher Education Academy
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director, UK Women’s Budget Group
Emily Bolton, Founder and Legal Director, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Emma Fenn, Secretary, Criminal Bar Association
Frances Crook, CEO, Howard League for Penal Reform
Gillian Jones QC, Treasurer, Criminal Bar Association
Glyn Maddocks, Solicitor & Founding Trustee of Centre for Criminal Appeals
Harriet Johnson, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers
Harriet Wistrich, Founder and CEO, Centre for Women’s Justice
James Burley, Caseworker, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Joe Hingston, Barrister, Carmelite Chambers
Kate Paradine, CEO, Women in Prison
Louise Hewitt, Lecturer in Law, University of Greenwich
Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer, Lead on Women, Family, Crime and Justice Research
Martine Lignon, Chair, Prisoners’ Advice Service
Mary Pimm, Trustee, Women in Prison
Maya Foa, Director, Reprieve
Miriam Thompson, Solicitor, Faradays Solicitors
Naima Sakande, Women’s Justice Advocate, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Otilia Ioana Galca, Criminal Defence Paralegal, Faradays Solicitors
Paramjit Ahluwalia, Barrister, Garden Court Chambers
Penelope Gibbs, Director, Transform Justice
Professor Claire McGourlay, Professor in Legal Education, University of Manchester
Professor Julie Price, Head of Pro Bono, Cardiff School of Law and Politics
Professor Rob Canton, Community and Criminal Justice, De Montford University
Rachel Browne, Solicitor, Steel and Shamash
Rachel Duffey, CEO, PayPlan
Rebecca Huggins, Solicitor, Trustee, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Richard Owen, Associate Professor, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law
Robert Wilson, Chief Executive, Institute of Money Advisors
Rona Epstein, Academic and Researcher, Coventry University
Sally Middleton, Solicitor, Birnberg Peirce
Sam Genen, Solicitor, Steel and Shamash
Sarah Vine, Wellbeing Director, Criminal Bar Association
Shauneen Lambe, Founder, Just for Kids Law
Simone Abel, Director of Operations, Policy and Resources, Reprieve
Stephen Burrell, Doctoral Researcher, Durham University
Suzanne Gower, Managing Director and Solicitor, Centre for Criminal Appeals
Yvonne Roberts, Chair, Women in Prison