Locking people up for non-payment of council tax is inhumane, ineffective and undermines public confidence in the justice system, a leading lawyer argues today.
In a report for the Social Market Foundation think-tank, Chris Daw QC calls for ministers to scrap English laws allowing custodial terms for people who do not pay council tax debts.
Other UK nations have already scrapped imprisonment for council tax non-payment but English local authorities still routinely seek prison terms for debtors. The maximum period of commitment to prison is 3 months.
Official figures show that between 2011 and 2017, almost 700 people were imprisoned for non-payment of council tax. There were also more than 7,000 suspended committal orders.
Many of those imprisoned are women, including some who have fled domestic violence and abuse, Daw said:
“Council Tax enforcement has a disproportionate impact on women, including those who may need to flee their home, and enter a refuge, to escape from domestic abuse. This is because women are more likely to have bills in their own names and even moving to a refuge does not remove the legal obligation to pay Council Tax on the home left behind.”
Non-payment of council tax is a civil matter, not a crime. Under a law dating back to the scrapping of the Poll Tax in 1993, councils can apply for a “commitment order” where a debtor can be imprisoned.
Unlike for criminal tax fraud, defendants do not have the right to a jury trial or to legal aid.
Daw’s report shows that use of committal powers varies greatly, with some councils using them extensively while many do not do so at all. 180 of 279 English councils did not seek imprisonment for council tax debtors in 2016/17. Meanwhile, one council – Bradford – started 20% of all committal processes in that year.
His report argues that ministers can and should issue an order immediately abolishing imprisonment orders, which are imposed only on the poor and vulnerable.
“This power of imprisonment is outdated and unfair. Its use imposes unjustifiable detriment on some of the most vulnerable members of society. Imprisoning council tax debtors delivers no benefit to the State or the wider public, while visiting unfairness on those subjected to such punishment. Laws allowing imprisonment for council tax debt could and should be revoked by ministerial order,” the report concludes.
Chris Daw QC will appear on Channel Four News on Wednesday 18th September to discuss his report, and a petition he has launched calling on ministers to address the issue, which has gathered thousands of signatures and widespread circulation on social media.
“This is an anachronistic, unfair, uneconomic and inhumane law and it must be revoked, to prevent further injustice. How can the poor and vulnerable have confidence and trust in the legal system, when a law like this operates to target only them, while leaving the better-off untouched?”
James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, said:
“Imprisoning women on the lowest incomes, who are disproportionately likely to have faced violence and abuse, over a civil debt is scandalous. Jailing vulnerable women costs taxpayers money, harms women and undermines faith in the criminal justice system.”
About the SMF:
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. The SMF retains complete editorial independence of its publications.