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Unlawful to imprison debtor without a proper inquiry into means

R (Woolcock & Bridgend Magistrates Court) v Cardiff Magistrates Court and Brigend County Council [2017] EWHC 34

The High Court found that a single mother who was sent to prison by the Magistrates’ Court for 81 days because she was unable to pay her council tax bill, was unlawfully imprisoned.

The applicant had failed to make council tax payments, and owed around £4700 to the local authority.  The magistrates’ found that the failure to pay was due to culpable neglect in breach of regulations.  The Court imposed a custodial sentence and suspended it in so far as she made payments of £5 per week.  The applicant defaulted on the payments and was imprisoned until the money was paid.

Although brought out of time, the court decided to extend the time limit as the liberty of the applicant was at stake.  The High Court quashed the Magistrates’ Order to commit the applicant to prison where she had defaulted on her repayments, on the basis that it was found to be unlawful.  There had been an inadequate inquiry into the applicant’s means.  In order to reach a finding of culpable neglect, the Magistrates’ Court ought to have considered the applicant’s income and expenditure over the relevant period.  Furthermore the period of repayment was found to be excessive and disproportionate.

Read UK Human Rights Blog article here.

Criminal Law