Debt advice firm PayPlan is calling for enhanced training for legal advisers and court staff, after 17 people were unlawfully sent to prison for council tax arrears last year.
PayPlan said the court failed to declare this a ‘systematic failing’, but it was acknowledged that a high number of errors and oversights were made by magistrates, resulting in these unlawful sentences.
PayPlan and the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) have been campaigning to abolish imprisonment for council tax debt across England and Wales, a practice already outlawed in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe.
A new report published by PayPlan and the IMA found that 99 out of 279 local authorities took court action for imprisonment against 4,817 people in 2016/17 – a rise of more than 10 percent compared to 2012/13.
Topping the list was Bradford Metropolitan Council, which launched court proceedings against 969 people, resulting in 18 being jailed. In second place, committing 14 people to prison, was the Vale of Glamorgan Council.
Coventry City Council was the second biggest user of court action for imprisonment recording 156 cases and five prison sentences.
Alistair Chisholm, head of advice sector policy and partnerships at PayPlan, said: “While the high court acknowledgment of these unlawful sentences is a starting point, it’s clear there is still a lot of work to be done by magistrates to ensure cases related to council tax debt are handled in the correct manner.
“Our money advisers speak to callers every day who are struggling to pay basic costs because of relationship breakdowns, illness or unemployment – the threat of a custodial sentence only makes the situation worse for those already trying to make ends meet.
“In cases that do go to court, we would like to see increased collaboration between court staff and money advisers, who have a unique perspective as providers of regulated debt advice and are also well-versed in current legislation. They are also able to advise individuals about budget options, which could help them to pay off their debts faster.”
Robert Wilson, chief executive of the Institute of Money Advisers, said: “As well as action by government and local councils, we need improved training for magistrates and court staff. Dealing with the growing number of people who have serious money problems requires expertise.
“Debt is complicated, and officials need an informed, professional understanding of the realities of living with financial difficulty. We would like to see the courts and the Ministry of Justice working more closely with money advisers”.