Sending people to prison for the non-payment of council tax is “inhumane” and “ineffective” and should be scrapped, according to a new report from the Social Market Foundation think-tank.
The report, written by the respected lawyer Chris Daw QC, argues that England should follow the rest of the UK in ending prison terms for council tax debtors.
England remains the only country in the UK where local authorities regularly call for council tax debtors to be jailed, with the maximum custodial sentence being three years imprisonment.
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.
Today’s report argues that the non-payment of council tax is a civil matter, and not a crime. And under the current system, defendants no not have the right to a jury trial and cannot access legal aid, meaning they could find themselves pushed even further into debt.
The report also argues that women are disproportionally affected, many of whom may have fled domestic violence, because they are more likely to be named as the person responsible for paying council tax.
Chris Daw QC 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.”
His report calls on government ministers to immediately abolish imprisonment orders, which are imposed only on the poor and vulnerable.
“This power of imprisonment is outdated and unfair”, he says. “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.”
He added: “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?”