THE BLOG
27/03/2018 15:28 BST | Updated 27/03/2018 15:28 BST

Why We Must End Unlawful Imprisonment For Council Tax Non-Payment

Between 2010 and 2017, a total of 692 people were sent to prison for not paying their council tax

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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.

Yours truly,

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

Network

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