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Unlawful imprisonment for council tax non-payment “one of the largest mass miscarriages of justice in British history”

The unlawful imprisonment of people for council tax non-payment “is likely to be one of the largest mass miscarriages of justice in British history”, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Angela Rafferty QC, and 57 other signatories of a letter to The Guardian have claimed.

The letter, which can be viewed here, follows a ruling by judges in January this year rejecting a claim that systemic failings in magistrates’ courts lead to high rates of unlawful imprisonment for council tax arrears.

However, Lord Justice Hickinbottom did conclude that imprisonment following default on a suspended commitment order of unlawful length appeared to happen in about 7-13 cases a year.

In the letter to The Guardian, Rafferty and her fellow signatories wrote: “The current council tax system is not only ‘highly regressive’ because of its weak links to property values as suggested in Phillip Inman’s article (Report, 20 March). Since council tax replaced the community charge in 1992, thousands of people in England and Wales have been jailed for not having paid their council tax. Unlike most other civil debts, people who fail to pay their council tax can be brought before criminal courts and imprisoned, despite having committed no actual crime.

“Even more worryingly, evidence now shows that year after year there have been significant numbers of people being unlawfully imprisoned for non-payment of council tax. The high court recently acknowledged, in a claim for judicial review brought by a single mother caring for an elderly neighbour, that between 9.5% and 18% of people imprisoned for council tax non-payment are sent there unlawfully. This is likely to be one of the largest mass miscarriages of justice in British history.”

The letter calls on the Government to:

  1. Abolish regulation 47(3) of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992, that allows the committal to prison for council tax non-payment.
  2. Review the court files of all those imprisoned for council tax debt in England and Wales between 2010 and 2017 to identify those who may have been wrongfully jailed and to inform them of this fact.
  3. Create an ex-gratia award scheme, overseen by independent adjudicators, to afford compensation to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for council tax debt.
  4. Ensure that in all courts where proceedings for council tax debt are under way, defendants are told of their right to free legal assistance, pursuant to the decision of the European court of human rights in Benham v UK (1996) 22 EHRR 293.

“Debt is not a crime. Let’s stop treating it like one,” the letter ends.

The signatories include Baroness Martha Lane Fox, Clive Stafford Smith (Founder of Reprieve), Emily Bolton (Founder and legal director, Centre for Criminal Appeals), Frances Crook (CEO, Howard League for Penal Reform), Gillian Jones QC (Treasurer, Criminal Bar Association) and Harriet Wistrich (Founder and CEO, Centre for Women’s Justice) as well as a number of academics.