Imprisonment of single mother over council tax debt unlawful – High Court

A High Court judge this morning ruled that a committal to prison for 81 days of a single mother who was unable to pay her council tax debt was unlawful.

In his judgment, the Hon. Mr Justice Lewis made clear that magistrates had failed to assess Melanie Woolcock’s financial means and had no basis for concluding her failure to pay was because of ‘culpable neglect’.

Ms. Woolcock of Porthcawl, Wales had been unemployed after working part-time in addition to caring for her school-age child and assisting with the care of an elderly neighbour when she fell behind on her council tax payments.

Ms. Woolcock was then arrested by bailiffs on 8 August 2016 despite days earlier making a payment towards her outstanding debt. She served 40 days of her prison term before the Centre for Criminal Appeals assisted with successful efforts to secure her release on bail.

The Centre is now preparing to intervene in a judicial review of the legality of the current system by which people are committed to prison for non-payment of council tax.

Such a challenge would focus on whether the present system violates Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to a fair trial.

Each year around 100 people are imprisoned for non-payment of council tax, according to figures supplied by the Ministry of Justice.

Extensive research by the Centre for Criminal Appeals indicates that such prison committals have almost always been found to have been unlawful when reviewed by the High Court.

Helen Ball, a volunteer researcher at the Centre, has identified and reviewed 145 cases since 1980 where a person’s committal to prison for non-payment of dues such as fines, council tax and the community charge has been ruled unlawful in the High Court.

She said: “In these cases, magistrates have often incorrectly concluded that there’s been culpable neglect or a wilful refusal to pay. Moreover, magistrates have regularly failed to properly assess a person’s ability to pay and to consider reasonable alternatives to prison.”

Suzanne Gower, Managing Director of the Centre, commented: “I’m pleased that the High Court has ruled that sending this single mother to prison because of her inability to pay council tax was unlawful. It is truly shocking that in the 21st Century over 100 vulnerable people are being imprisoned each year for being poor.

“I hope the Government will work with us to put an end to similar cases. The current system is Dickensian and benefits no one.”

NB: Sam Genen, consultant at law firm Ahmed Rahmann Carr and now head of the Centre’s Women Sentencing Project, acted as Ms. Woolcock’s solicitor in this case. Barrister Rose Grogan of 39 Essex Chambers appeared on behalf of Ms. Woolcock at the judicial review hearing held on 9 November 2016 in Cardiff.