About 100 people a year serve unlawful sentences in the UK for the failure to pay Council Tax.

Once adequate legal services have been provided these sentences are almost always found to have been flawed. Campaigners are urging anyone in prison for council tax debt to immediately apply for bail.

The magistrates’ decision to order imprisonment will later be challenged at the High Court in a process called judicial review.

Rona Epstein, a legal researcher, has already helped three UK women secure their release from prison, but fears that many more are still facing imprisonment.

According to Epstein ‘about 100 people are imprisoned each year because they owe council tax. Once in prison for debt they receive no help and no advice. No one tells them that there is a way to challenge the magistrates’ decision.

‘In the rare instances when a challenge via judicial review is mounted the High Court almost always quashes the decision to imprison as unlawful.’ This process is explained in further detail here.

No one should serve time in prison for a civil debt.’ Epstein added. ‘Owing money is not a crime.

A string of government funding cuts in recent years has seen the number of law centres fall dramatically across the country and there have been severe restrictions in access to legal aid.

Sending someone to prison for not paying his or her council tax is almost always unlawful.

Magistrates do have the power to order up to 3 months imprisonment for council tax debt. However, the law states that imprisonment is a last resort and other methods must be used if there is an alternative. The court can order attachment to benefits if the debtor has no job, or attachment to earnings if the debtor is employed, and in the vast majority of cases these are viable alternatives.

Epstein has urged anyone now in prison because of unpaid council tax to contact a lawyer immediately, which can be done via the Centre for Criminal Appeals. They can then apply for immediate release on bail, and to have the sentence reviewed by the High Court via judicial review. 

For more information please see this article by Epstein for the Local Government Lawyer, or this article from the Coventry University Law Journal.

The Centre For Criminal Appeals can be found: online; at 2-10 Princeton Street, London, WC1R 4BH; and on 020 7040 0019.

Rona Epstein can be contacted at r.epstein@coventry.ac.uk Rona would be interested to hear your story if you have served a sentence of imprisonment for council tax debt, as part of a research study she is now conducting. Please email her and tell her your story.