Committal to Prison for Council Tax Debts – The perils of acting without proper legal advice

Civil Law

24 August 2016

A recent case I dealt with provides a useful illustration of ‘Murphy’s Law’ (“anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), and highlights the importance of seeking the appropriate legal advice before taking any action

Mr X refused to pay his Council Tax over a period of several years and owed over £6,000, so in December 2014 the Magistrates Court imposed 28 days imprisonment, suspended if he paid £170 per month.

Mr X only made three payments in sixteen months and in April 2016 the Magistrates Court, using their powers under Regulation 47 of the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992, found his non-payment to be “wilful refusal or culpable neglect” (Regulation 47(3)), activated the sentence and committed him to prison (for 27 days, because they had to give credit for the few payments he had made). The Magistrates Court followed the proper procedure (see R (ex parte Aldous) v Dartford Magistrates Court and Gravesham BC [2011] EWHC 1919 (Admin)) – so far, so good.

However, Mr X, acting in person and without taking legal advice, lodged an appeal with the Magistrates Court (under section 108 Magistrates Court Act 1980, which doesn’t apply to these proceedings), who duly passed it to the Crown Court. The Crown Court listed the matter for hearing (because no one realised they couldn’t hear the matter) but didn’t tell the Council. When the Council didn’t attend, the Court rang the Council and told them that someone had to attend the Court the next day when it would be re-listed.

Due to confusion between the person in the Court office and the person at the Council, the person who attended the next day didn’t have the right to address the Court. So the Judge (with no one to oppose the appeal or to address him on the law) allowed the appeal and ordered the release of Mr X (who had by then served three quarters of the 27 days anyway). At some stage the Court office also converted the original Council Tax debt (over £6,000), which would be recoverable by the Council, into Compensation (which would be recoverable by the Court).

A few weeks later the Judge (I suspect after a discussion over lunch in the Judges’ Dining Room) ordered the matter to be re-listed, with someone to attend on behalf of the Council to explain what had happened; cue an urgent call to Chambers.

There then followed a short hearing when the facts and the law were explained to the Court who agreed that the appeal was a nullity, the original decision void, the Compensation order wholly inappropriate and the debt should be recoverable by the Council.

The moral of the story is, of course, that it’s imperative that you (whether an individual or a Council) take legal advice before acting and get proper representation if you are going to Court – in this case Mr X (or the Council) would have been told that the only ‘appeal’ from the decision of the Magistrates Court would be to the High Court by case stated (section 111 Magistrates Courts Act 1980), but that given an income in excess of £1,000 per week the Magistrates’ finding that he had deliberately refused to pay was entirely reasonable.

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