Debt is not a crime: reviewing imprisonment for council tax non-payment
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 she is now bringing judicial review proceedings to try to redress this injustice for good, represented by Sam Genen of Steel and Shamash Solicitors. It will be heard over two days in the High Court of Justice in Cardiff starting on December 18th. If this legal challenge were to succeed, it could lead to an overhaul of current practices preventing future such unlawful imprisonments of vulnerable people.
We need decriminalise poverty. No one should end up behind bars for being unable to pay a debt.
This article was first published on December 18, 2017
Naima is women’s justice advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals