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.