Judge admits that up to 18% of council tax imprisonments a year may be ‘unlawful’

A judgement handed down today by the High Court in Cardiff outlines 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.

Lord Justice Hickinbottom’s analysis of 95 individuals sent to prison between April 2016 and July 2017 found that between 9 and 17 individuals will have been sent there unlawfully because the court ordered repayment over an excessive window of time.

The judgement relates to a legal challenge, launched with the help of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, alleging that systematic failings have led to high rates of unlawful imprisonment for council tax debts.

The Claimant, Melanie Woolcock, is a single mother from Wales who was unlawfully sentenced to 81 days in prison for falling behind on her council tax payments after becoming unemployed. Ms. Woolcock successfully challenged her sentence in January 2017, and brought judicial review proceedings to prevent people in council tax debt losing their liberty unlawfully.

Barrister Cathryn McGahey QC arguing on behalf of the Claimant places 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 finds 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 acknowledges that “Ms McGahey appears 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.

Naima Sakande, Women’s Justice Advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals said:

“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.”