No longer in prison: Melanie's sentence is quashed
by Rona Epstein, Research Assistant, Coventry Law School, Coventry University
Well done Sam Genen and Rose Grogan for taking this case on and getting such a good result! This is an important decision.
How did it all start? Usually people sent to prison for not paying council tax get no help. They receive no advice about bail. They do their time. They never imagine that it is an error in law that has put them in a prison cell. Owing money is not a crime.
This is what happened in this case. A few months ago I wrote an article on council tax debt for the magazine Ready, Steady, Go! which is published by Women in Prison and sent to all the women's prisons. It explained the law about owing council tax and what should happen if someone has difficulty in paying the tax they owe.
Melanie, a single mother 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. Women in Prison contacted me and I then spoke to staff at the Centre for Criminal Appeals who asked Sam Genen and Rose Grogan to act for Melanie. They got Melanie out of prison on bail, and later there was a court hearing. The judge declared that sending Melanie to prison because she owed council tax was an unlawful decision. The magistrates had made a number of serious mistakes.
We are all working now to get this unjust law changed. No one should serve time in prison because of a civil debt. The law is set out here.