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Judges dismiss claim of systemic failings over council tax arrears imprisonment

Judges have rejected a claim that systemic failings in magistrates’ courts lead to high rates of unlawful imprisonment for council tax arrears.

Hickinbottom LJ, who heard the case alongside Mr Justice Lewis, said people were unlawfully committed to prison over council tax debts, but such cases were too rare to constitute any systemic fault.

The case was brought by Melanie Woolcock, who was jailed after failing to keep up with payments ordered by magistrates to Bridgend County Borough Council.

In 2009-14 she accumulated council tax arrears of £4,741.76 on two properties and was ordered to pay these off over periods of 6.5 and 11.5 years.

Ms Woolcock made some payments but when these stopped was warned that a warrant for committal would be issued.

She failed to attend court and was jailed for 81 days. While in prison, she learned of grounds for considering her detention unlawful and applied for judicial review and an urgent application for bail, which was granted.

The latest hearing involved Ms Woolcock’s contention that the enforcement of council tax by committal is systemically unfair, because magistrates frequently issue a warrant following a failure by the debtor to comply with an unreasonable and disproportionate condition attached to a suspended committal order, where they are required to pay instalments of arrears for an excessive period.

She also complained that they made committal orders in absentia.

The case was brought against the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State for Justice, Welsh Ministers, Bridgend Magistrates’ Court and Bridgend Council.

Giving judgment, Hickinbottom LJ said magistrates had the power to commit in absentia and on the data before the court, “if magistrates in South Wales are acting idiosyncratically in committing in absentia, there is insufficient evidence to conclude they are acting unlawfully and certainly insufficient evidence to suggest any inherent systemic procedural unfairness rather than individual (or, at worst, local) error”.

He said imprisonment following default on a suspended commitment order of unlawful length appeared to happen in only about 7-13 cases a year.

“Of course, in each case, an individual has lost his or her liberty on the basis of an unlawful order; and that level of error by magistrates is of concern and unacceptable,” the judge said.

“But neither the numbers nor the proportion of cases in which that error was made, without more, in my view comes close to being sufficient to draw the inference that there is a problem inherent within the system.”

He said the issue of unfair and disproportionate length of suspended committal orders did not arise out of the systemic procedures themselves, but in the ordinary course of individual decision-making by magistrates.

“Given that no one suggests that any magistrate is acting with deliberate perversity, [Ms Woolcock’s barrister] appears to be right to condemn the relevant magistrates (and their legal advisers) as being ignorant of well-established law,” the judge said.

“However, the number of magistrates who have so erred must be a very small proportion of the corpus of magistrates; and, similarly, the evidence suggests that no more than, at most, a tiny proportion of legal advisers and solicitors representing council tax debtors are similarly ignorant.

“Such individual errors cannot be recast as a systemic deficiency because such ignorance might have been addressed earlier.”

Naima Sakande, women’s justice advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals, which acted for Ms Woolcock, said: “The judgment 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.”

Mark Smulian

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