Poverty is not a crime: ending imprisonment for debt

By Tara Casey

(This blog originally appeared on 18 October 2019 on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ website)

As the country prepares to enter into a new legal and political era, marked by novel and complex constitutional challenges, some of the most vulnerable members of society, and particularly women, are facing legal battles which would not be out of place in Victorian times.

Many people are entirely unaware and rightly shocked to find out that you can end up in prison for owing council tax or for not paying TV licence fines. Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in 2019.

Take council tax for example. In September 2019, independent think-tank, the Social Market Foundation, published a scathing report of Regulation 47 of the Council Tax Regulations 1992 which empowers magistrates to commit an individual to prison for up to three months for non-payment of council tax. Owing council tax is not a crime, and yet this civil debt lands roughly 100 people a year in prison. With a number of councils employing aggressive enforcement tactics and magistrates routinely misapplying the law, many have been wrongfully sent to prison in circumstances where they had to choose between paying the council or paying for food.

The criminalisation of debt disproportionately affects women, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the prosecution of TV licence fee evasion. In 2018, 72 per cent of all prosecutions for licence fee non-payment were against women, despite women being half of licence holders. It is the most common offence for which women are prosecuted, accounting for an astonishing 30 per cent of all female prosecutions.

So why the disparity?

To date, we still haven’t seen a good enough answer. The Gender Disparity Report published by the BBC in 2017 failed to take responsibility for this glaring inequality, claiming that it was ‘the higher number of female-only households, the increased availability of women to answer the door whenever we visit, and the increased likelihood of women to open the door and engage positively’ that caused the problem. The report fails to address, however, the serious lack of transparency in TV Licensing and their privately contracted enforcement firm, Capita’s policies and procedures, which potentially conceal insidious sources of gender discrimination.

TV licence prosecutions are also in the category of cases which are now being dealt with via a mechanism known as the Single Justice Procedure (SJP). Cases are taken out of the courtroom and moved either online or to the postal service. A defendant is meant to send their plea to the court remotely and a single magistrate decides the case aided by a legal advisor without ever meeting the defendant in person.

The SJP has received considerable criticism since its inception, since over 60 per cent of these ‘fast track’ defendants never enter a plea, leaving a large number of people at risk of automatic conviction. There have been a number of instances where the notice was sent to the wrong address, the case decided in the defendant’s absence and a criminal record created in their name without them ever being made aware. Unlike owing council tax, TV licence fee evasion is a crime and the idea that people, overwhelmingly women, may be getting criminal records without their knowledge, is of grave concern.

The power of magistrates

More worrying still, defaulting on your TV licence fine can land you in prison. Magistrates have the power to send someone to prison for the non-payment of a court fine handed down after a TV licensing conviction. Similar to council tax, magistrates are supposed to ensure that the individual is ‘wilfully refusing’ or ‘culpably neglecting’ to pay what is owed, but as 1 in 5 of council tax committal orders have been made unlawfully without, for example, appropriate means testing, it is not unlikely that similar abuse of process is occurring in TV licensing cases.

Criminalising debt is an ineffective and unnecessary method of ensuring debtors keep up their payments. Two thirds of councils do not use their powers to commit to prison under Regulation 47 and are still running efficiently. Wales recently announced the abolition of imprisonment for council tax debt, leaving England as the only country in the UK retaining the power.

Disproportionate burden on women

We should be scandalised by the disproportionate burden of TV license fee enforcement on women and asking ourselves how that system can possibly be just. We need increased commitment from the government to legislatively address the criminalisation of poverty and its disproportionate effects on women, and assurance that the issue will not be side-lined in policy reform moving forward.

Poverty is not a crime and should never be treated as one.


Tara Casey is a Women’s Justice Caseworker at APPEAL

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