Wales trailblazes as it ends prison sentences for council tax debts – while England lags behind
The Centre for Criminal Appeals are delighted that Welsh Finance Minister Mark Drakeford has announced an end to the use of imprisonment for owing council tax. The “outdated and disproportionate” prison sentences will be binned in April 2019.
This is the result of years of hard work, smart lawyering and coordinated campaign efforts by brave and determined victims of this unjust practise.
One woman’s refusal to stay silent
Melanie Woolcock found herself unable to keep up with her council tax repayments in 2016. A single mother and the carer for her elderly neighbour, Melanie found it hard to keep up with her bills after losing her job. Bridgend Magistrates’ Court gave her an 81-day prison sentence for the simple fact of her poverty.
In prison, Melanie came across an article by Rona Epstein, an academic and researcher, in the Women in Prison magazine. The article talked about the unlawful use of prison for council tax debt and encouraged affected women to write to us, the Centre for Criminal Appeals, for support appealing their sentences. Melanie wrote in.
Supported by CCA lawyers Clementine Harrison and Sam Genen, she successfully won a legal challenge to her committal to prison and was released, having served 40 days inside. It was later ruled that mistakes had been made in her case, and that she should never be imprisoned in the first place.
Unwilling to let the injustice she suffered affect anyone else, she brought judicial review proceedings, alleging that systemic failings were causing many people to end up in prison unlawfully. While judges didn’t agree that the issue was systemic, they did find that magistrates were making mistakes in as many as 18% of cases and wrongfully imprisoning people.
The campaign for change
We believe it is draconian, unreasonable and cruel to use imprisonment for civil debt enforcement. It criminalises poverty and disproportionally affects the vulnerable, particularly women with caring responsibilities.
We supported Melanie to tell her story to the press to highlight this important issue. She spoke on Good Morning Wales and BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, telling more than 4 million listeners about her ordeal.
We drafted Early Day Motion 926, calling for an end to imprisonment for council tax non-payment, tabled it in parliament and got our supporters to email their MPs about the issue, with the incredible support of national women’s rights charity, Women in Prison.
We also coordinated an open letter, signed by 57 influential lawyers, academics and charity sector leaders and published in the Guardian and the Huffington Post decrying this practise as “likely to be one of the largest mass miscarriages of justice in British history”.
Wales shows vision and leadership
In June of this year, the Welsh government bravely announced they would be taking steps to end jail terms for council tax debt. The consultation on the issue launched in September and cited Melanie’s case, determined campaigning, and the open letter in their justification for seeking an end to this outdated practice.
11 of the 14 local authorities who replied to the consultation agreed in principle with removing the option of imprisonment for non-payment.
The Welsh Finance Minister stated, “it is right that those who are less able to contribute are treated fairly and with dignity. The sanction of imprisonment is an outdated and disproportionate response to a civil debt issue."
He added: "There is little evidence of a relationship between the use of the committal process and collection rates while there is growing evidence that collection levels and arrears are best managed through early engagement with citizens."
As of April 2019, Wales will abolish the sanction of imprisonment for council tax debt.
Sam Genen, Melanie’s lawyer, said: “This is clearly a result of the Welsh Government being presented with the terrifying facts in Ms Woolcock's case. Without her brave perseverance to uncover the systemic failures it is highly likely that nothing would have changed. It is disappointing that the English government will take no active steps to remove this morally repugnant practice.”
Come on England
Scotland and Northern Ireland do not use imprisonment as a sanction for council tax debt. Wales has become the next country to recognise that poverty is not a crime.
Now it remains for England to do the right thing.
One thing is for sure: this campaign is far from over.