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Debt is not a crime: reviewing imprisonment for council tax non-payment

This blog looks at the issue of people being unlawfully imprisoned for failing to pay their Council Tax, an issue disproportionately affecting women.

Naima Sakande

This blog looks at the issue of people being unlawfully imprisoned for failing to pay their Council Tax, something which disproportionately affects women.

Being in debt is not a crime. So why are nearly 100 people a year sent to prison for falling behind on council tax payments?

Everyone who is able to should pay council tax – it covers our bin collections, road cleaning, and basic services that everyone benefits from and should have access to. But for a small proportion of the population, it is a bill that is difficult and sometimes impossible to pay. Take the case of Amanda Aldous.

Amanda is a mother of five children, the youngest of whom is autistic. She was in an abusive relationship and fell behind on council tax payments, owing the council £7,000. To her horror, despite having offered to pay the council back at a rate she could afford, magistrates sentenced her to 90 days in prison.

Or take Melanie Woolcock (whose case was reported by The Justice Gap here). Melanie is a single mother who was caring for both her son and an elderly neighbour with limited means. Struggling financially, she prioritised paying her rent, gas and electric and buying food and ended up owing the council £4,700. Despite Melanie having made a payment of £100 towards her debt, she was sentenced to 81 days in prison.

Or another woman who prefers to remain anonymous; we’ll call her Marie. Marie was the primary caregiver for her husband, who suffers from mental illness, and her young daughter when she fell behind on council tax payments. She owed the council about £4,500 and was handed a sentence of 69 days in prison for culpable neglect of paying the debt.

In all three cases lawyers successfully challenged these sentences on the grounds that they were unlawfully given out, but only after the three women had suffered the trauma of imprisonment and separation from their families. Magistrates have the power to call people to court regarding a council tax debt. However, the law states that committal orders to prison should only be used as an absolute last resort only if no other means of recovering the debt is possible. It is unlawful to give a committal order as punishment or as a deterrent as poverty and debt are not crimes – and yet it appears that this is precisely what is happening to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Magistrates can only give a committal order if they feel the defendant has shown culpable neglect in addressing the payment of the bill, or that the person has wilfully refused to pay. In a recent case, boxer Oliver Pinnock was sentenced to prison after attempting to use the Magna Carta to claim he wasn’t liable for the payments. He made an active choice. But how active a choice can you make when the money simply isn’t in your account?

There is no choice for people like Amanda, Melanie and Marie, who find themselves unable to pay due to their circumstances. If magistrates don’t conduct proper means assessments and fully consider the position of people struggling to pay their debts, they risk gross miscarriages of justice, as they take away the liberty of those who have committed no crime.

And what could be more ironic than the government footing the astronomical cost of imprisoning someone as an alternative to recovering the debt owed to a local council? If you take the average cost of imprisonment in 2016/17, a 90-day council tax prison stint will cost the taxpayer a cool £8,700, hardly an appropriate use of funds.

The price of getting this wrong is not merely academic. Mothers have lost access to their children, people in need of support have lost carers and those sent to prison have battled poor mental health as they deal with the upheaval and trauma of imprisonment.

The Centre for Criminal Appeals believes that a large proportion of council tax debt imprisonments are unlawful. The Centre assisted in helping to secure the release of Melanie Woolcock in 2016 and in January 2017 Ms. Woolcock successfully challenged her sentence, bringing judicial review proceedings to prevent people in council tax debt losing their liberty unlawfully.

The judgement handed down by the High Court in Cardiff outlined that individual errors in council tax non-payment cases may mean that between 9.5 and 18% of committals to prison for debt are unlawfully handed down each year.Barrister Cathryn McGahey QC arguing on behalf of the Claimant placed the number of unlawful committals to prison a year at a much higher figure of 52%. She alleges that incorrect means assessments, or an erroneous judgement that failure to pay was because of ‘culpable neglect’ or ‘willful refusal’ are additional reasons why such imprisonments may be unlawful.

The judgement found that individual errors are to blame for the high number of mistakes and states that oversights made by a proportion of magistrates in council tax cases does not amount to a systematic deficiency. It acknowledged that “Ms McGahey appeared to be right to condemn the relevant magistrates (and their legal advisers) as being ignorant of well-established law”. The judgement suggests that further training and guidance may be issued to legal advisors and solicitors to address these problems.

The price of ignorance in these cases is simply too high. The judgement has exposed some deep failings in the council tax system. The toll of being sent to prison unlawfully cannot be overstated and more must be done to protect society’s most vulnerable from needlessly losing their liberty. Poverty is not a crime and our judicial system needs to do more to acknowledge this.

Naima Sakande works as a Women’s Justice Advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals.

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