A new report called “I can’t believe we still do that” produced by Payplan and the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) looks at the imprisonment of people for council tax arrears in England and Wales.
Councils started court action to send 4,881 to prison in 2016-17. Their average debt was only £2,213.
UPDATE: In April 2019 the Welsh government ended imprisonment for council tax debt.
This a draconian procedure, out of step with the way other debts are treated by the courts. And as Robert Wilson, Chief Executive of the Institute of Money Advisers, says:
Imprisonment does not clear their debt – in fact, it usually increases it further. Putting people in prison makes it harder for them to make payments and can cause chaos in their work and family life. On top of that, tax payers also have to meet the costs of prison.
A creditor can’t make someone bankrupt for such a small amount, so how can it be right that:
- people in trouble with council tax can be treated as criminals, sometimes having to attend a magistrate’s court hearing in handcuffs;
- sentenced to up to 90 days in prison, but with no sentencing guidelines for magistrates;
- there is no requirement for magistrates to obtain a pre-sentence report, so family problems and caring responsibilities are not taken into account;
- no time off for good behaviour in prison;
- in most cases the only way to appeal a sentence is by a judicial review in the High Court;
Misleading threats by bailiffs
It’s not only the thousands of people who have to attend a commital hearing in a magistrates court that are affected. A much large number receive threatening letters from bailiffs, even though there is no prospect of prison in 99% of cases.
Here is an extract from a letter from a large firm of bailiffs which is headed NOTICE OF COMMITTAL ACTION (the red and the highlighted words are from the letter):
As you have failed to make payment arrangements on this account with us, the next step is to formally report this to the Local Authority, recommending that they make application for a magistrate’s court hearing to consider your committal to prison …
You will be required to attend this hearing where magistrates will investigate your commital and determine whether your failure to pay is because you have wilfully refused to pay or through your neglect to pay.
Should the magistrates be satisfied on either count, they will be required by law to commit you to prison for up to 90 days …
To avoid this next course of action we are providing this final opportunity for you to make payment. You must respond to this notice within 7 days.
This letter is actively misleading:
- it is not the role of a bailiff to determine the next step a council takes. Councils have other options, including deductions from benefits and attachment of income orders. The majority of councils do not start any commital proceedings.
- the letter gives the impression the magistrates have to decide between two reasons for non-payment – wilful refusal or culpable neglect. It fails to mention that the magistrates can decide that the non-payment was because the debtor did not have the means to pay and that magistrates can write off all or part of the debt.
- magistrates are not required by law to commit someone to prison if they find wilful refusal or culpable neglect – a debtor can still make a reasonable offer of payment and avoid prison.
In research for the report, over 80% of councils responded:
- 166 did not start any commital proceedings for council tax debt;
- 99 started commital proceedings;
- only 17 councils actually had anyone sent to prison, see table below.
This is a complete postcode lottery. What have the residents of Bradford and Coventry done to deserve this treatment? As the report says:
We have not been able to identify any factor in the billing authorities that still imprison people to explain why these councils might choose to take an unusually harsh approach. For every council that imprisons people, there are similar councils all over the country that do not resort to this action.