Some time ago, an article by Rona Epstein on council tax debt was published in the magazine Ready, Steady, Go! produced by Women In Prison distributed to all women’s prisons. It explained the law about council tax debt. Melanie, a single mother from Porthcawl in Wales, who was in poor health and in financial difficulties, read the article while she was in prison. She was serving a sentence of 81 days imprisonment for owing council tax. She wrote to Women in Prison asking for advice. APPEAL found expert legal help for Melanie, who was then released from prison on bail. The later court decision was to quash her sentence, as the magistrates had made a number of serious mistakes sending her to prison. Following much publicity about this case, in June 2018, the Welsh government announced a consultation with the aim of abolishing imprisonment for council tax debt. As a result of the consultation, the law was changed. Now, people in Wales, like those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, cannot be sent to prison for council tax debt – a huge step forward. In England, it is still possible for magistrates, making the same sort of errors, to impose a custodial sentence for owing council tax. Hear Melanie speak about her experience Here
About 100 people go to prison every year because they owe council tax. Those sent to prison for council tax debt are very seldom offered the opportunity to challenge the magistrates’ decision to impose custody. No one gives them advice about bail, or informs them that the magistrates’ decision to commit them to prison can be challenged via judicial review. They do their time. They never imagine that it is an error in law that has put them in a prison cell. A recent high court judgement showed that at minimum, between 9.5% and 18% of people sent to prison for council tax non-payment, are sent there unlawfully. Owing money is not a crime: magistrates should not send anyone to prison for owing council tax. Instead, they could consider solutions such as deductions from benefits or wages over a period of time, so that the amount owed is gradually paid back, as well as debt forgiveness where appropriate.
TV Licence non-payment
Someone convicted for non-payment of the TV Licence fee, who does not pay the fine set by the magistrates, is at risk of imprisonment. A means inquiry is required (similar to that applicable to non-payment of council tax) in cases concerning non-payment of court fines before any committal order can be made. However, as with council tax non-payments, magistrates may erroneously send someone to prison. Thus, vulnerable people facing multiple difficulties and disadvantages may find themselves committed to prison under the current system for TV licensing enforcement and prosecution.
In 2019, 73% of those prosecuted for the offence of TV licence fee non-payment were women, despite women making up only 49% of licence holders. In fact, TV Licensing prosecutions accounted for 30% of all prosecuted against women, making it the most common offence for which women are prosecuted. Of those prosecuted in 2018, 5% were over 60 years old. TV Licensing’s recent decision to end free licences for people over 75 – unless they receive pension credit – may have put poor and vulnerable pensioners at significant risk of prosecution and imprisonment.
This gender disproportionality has gone up by 10% in the past decade and there is still no satisfactory explanation from the BBC as to why it is taking more vulnerable women to court for TV licence fee non-payment. Its 2017 Report took no responsibility for the disproportionality.
To find out more about how women are unfairly impacted by the criminalisation of council tax and TV licence fee debt, go to the APPEAL website Here.
Over 90% of TV licence cases proceed by way of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP), in which a notice is sent to a person by post with 21 days to respond with a guilty or not guilty plea, which will determine whether or not there is a need for an oral hearing. The Ministry of Justice has disclosed, via Written Parliamentary Questions, that about 80% of TVL defendants do not enter a plea, and that the introduction of SJP has not improved the response rate. A number of people are thus at risk of receiving a criminal conviction without their knowledge, perhaps due to the simple, yet common, error of using an incorrect postal address. SJP cases were suspended for a number of months during the coronavirus pandemic, but resumed once the country started opening back up in summer 2020. However, courts are still not scheduling these non-essential trials, thus there will likely be a significant backlog of cases of individuals who want to plead not guilty. This delay could hamper an individual’s ability to defend themselves when the memory of the visit of the Enforcement Officer might not be particularly fresh, and there may be pressure on defendants to plead guilty and have the matter closed.
However, despite lockdown, the public consultation period for the Government’s Consultation into decriminalising the non-payment of the TV Licence fee closed on 1st April 2020. The consultation provided an opportunity for criminal justice and debt advice charities and women’s rights organisations to highlight the issues, pointing out that the usual enforcement regime has disproportionately affected poor women.
There have been unofficial reports claiming that the government is close to announcing decriminalisation of the offence, but as of yet, no plans for what kind of enforcement scheme is set to replace it.