IMPRISONMENT OF THE ELDERLY FOR LOCAL TAXATION DEFAULT
www.access-to-justice.org

Contributed by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust
CASES INVOLVING ELDERLY DEBTORS

Alan Murdie LL.B, Barrister
Trustee, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

Here is a selection of cases which reached national prominence in the media or have become the subject of full appeals before 
the High Court.

1. Richard Northover aged 79. Summonsed to court on June 14 1990 by Poole Borough Council who sought to impose £450 
in penalties because of his failure to fill in a community charge form. The court reduced the sum by £200 but imposed  a liability 
order for £250. He failed to pay this and was jailed for 30 days in October 1991. He had actually paid his community charge. 
The case was mentioned in the House of Commons during Parliamentary Questions in October 1991 by David Nellist, MP.

2. Cyril Mundin, aged 75. Jailed for one month by Northampton Magistrates in October 1990 for failure to pay community 
charge. Released after payment of the sum by the Daily Mirror.

3. Anne Ursell, 67 suffering from diabetes and a heart condition was unlawfully jailed by Faversham and Sittingbourne 
Magistrates' Court in 1992. This was despite the court having received a letter from her doctor about her condition. The 
committal to prison was quashed by the High Court and is reported in R v Faversham and Sittingbourne Magistrates' Court ex 
p Ursell(1992) RA 99.

4. George and Doris Smedburg (74 and 80 years) old. Jailed by Ilkeston Justices for 28 days in February 1994. The 
magistrates court had known at earlier hearings that Mr Smedburg suffered from severe epilepsy and arthritis. Mrs Smedburg 
received attendance allowance and suffering from asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and doubly incontinent and being wheelchair 
bound. Police refused to execute the arrest warrant and appeal by way of leave for judicial review, backed for bail. The local 
authority claimed the Smedburgs had refused to pay £600 in outstanding community charge. On appeal in the High Court it was 
revealed that the true amount was only £349.95 and that the couple had been up to date with an existing payment arrangement 
at the time the warrant was issued. The case is reported in full in R v Erewash BC and Ilkeston Justices ex p. Smedburg and 
Smedburg (1994) RVR 60, highlighting defects in the warrant.

5. Dorothy Pittaway, 64  was jailed by Oldbury Magistrates' Court for 14 days in 1994 for non-payment of community charge. 
She was in hospital recovering from TB at the time of arrest, was an alcoholic and weighed six stone. On examination by a 
police surgeon at the prison she was discharged from prison into council care. On appeal to the High Court the prison 
sentenced was reduced to one day, subsequently commuted entirely on intervention by Betty Boothroyd, MP, and Speaker of 
the House of Commons.

6. Marjorie Ribbans, 71, illiterate and suffering from a terminal cancer was unlawfully jailed for community charge default by 
Barnet Justices in 1996. Committal was quashed by the High Court and remains authority that justices should be alert to the a 
debtor being illiterate and unable to respond properly to proceedings. See R v Barnet Justices ex p. Ribbans (1997) 
CO/2757/96.

7. Elizabeth Jack, 71 of Doncaster (since deceased). Jailed for 90 days in respect of council tax arrears. The case was 
reviewed by the High Court in R v Doncaster Justices ex P. Jack and Christison  (1999) The Times May 26 where the court 
condemned the maximum 3 month sentence passed  as manifestly excessive. Justices had tried to justify the order on the basis 
of culpable neglect because Mrs Jack had spent money on having her hair done which justices said should have been used to 
clear council tax arrears. The bench of justices were also found to have made identical procedural errors in a similar hearing in 
1998 where an unlawful committal was quashed on appeal.

8. Nellie Copson, 81, jailed in March 2000 for 14 days for unpaid uniform business rate demands. Currently on appeal 
(Further details with Ian Wise Doughty Street Chambers)

COMMENT

9. England and Wales remain the only countries in Europe to continue to jail people for local tax default. Scotland abolished 
imprisonment for debt in 1987. Over the last ten years there have been many cases of people wrongly jailed by magistrates for 
failure to pay local taxes. Many of these have been pensioners.

10. The problem of jailing of elderly people for failure to pay local government taxes was first identified in the 1980s by Audrey 
Harvey of Shelter (Pamphlet "In Court for Rates and the Community Charge" Shelter 1987). She discovered elderly rates 
defaulters were being committed to prison without legal aid or proper procedures being followed. Sometimes the court would 
merely detail an elderly person for an afternoon or until the court rose (no power in fact existed to do this); on other occasions 
longer sentences were imposed. Harvey predicted the situation would worsen with the community charge.

11. Evidence shows cases of pensioners being jailed turn out not be an aberration of the community charge but an inherent 
problem with the enforcement of all four systems of local taxation levied in England and Wales in the last 10 years 
(rates,uniform business rates, community charge and council tax).

12. In over 90% of the appeals heard to date,  the decisions of justices to commit  debtors have been quashed - a success rate 
unparalleled in any other area of judicial review. All too often the successful applicants have turned out to be debtors who are 
elderly, people with physical or mental disabilities or single parents on low incomes.

PROVISIONS FOR COMMITTAL FOR LOCAL TAX DEFAULT

13. Provisions for the commitment of a local tax debtor are set out in  Regulations 47 and 48 of the Council Tax 
(Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 SI 613, Regulations 41 and 42 of the Community Charges (Administration 
and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 as re-enacted, with amendments following the case of R v Poole Justices ex p. Benham 
(1992)156 JP 157. Modelled on ss 102 and 103 of the General Rate Act 1967, analogous procedures also apply for 
non-domestic rating under Regulation 16 of the Non-Domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) Regulations 
1989 SI 1015. These are the regulations which would have to be amended in order to stop pensioners being sent to jail for 
local tax default.

14. It is important to note that imprisonment for tax default is not a  punishment but a coercive measure only to be applied 
where there is proof that assets to discharge a debt exist (although courts have all too frequently failed to understand this crucial 
proviso). Sentences are not intended to contain a deterrent element.

15. The power to apply for the imprisonment of a local tax defaulter only arises where a local authority has failed in a levy of 
distress against the goods of the debtor; this is a matter which must be proved to the court as a prerequisite.

16. Regulation 47(2) sets out the procedure the court must follow when faced with an application for committal: "On such 
application being made the court shall (in the debtor's presence) inquire as to his means and inquire whether the failure to pay 
which led to the liability order being made against him was due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect." "If (and only if) the 
court is of the opinion that his failure to pay was due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect it may if it thinks fit:

a. issue a warrant of commitment against the debtor
b. fix a term of imprisonment and postpone the issue of the warrant until
such time and on such conditions (if any) "as the court thinks just."

17. The power to make an application for committal of a debtor only arises after a local authority has sought unsuccessfully to 
levy distress; this is an essential prerequisite to be proved before the court before any power to seek a committal application 
arises.

18. Depending on the results of its inquiries, magistrates at a committal hearing have a number of options where a debt is found 
to be outstanding. They may:

a. Issue a warrant of commitment
b. Postpone the issue of a warrant of commitment suspended on terms (invariably payment by instalments)
c. Remit of the whole or part of the debt
d. Adjourn  the application
e. Make no order (the local authority having a right to renew the application
where circumstances are changed)

19. Unfortunately there is much evidence to suggest that magistrates do not properly understand their duties or their 
responsibilities and these options are not explored. Few debtors are represented and very limited legal aid provision was only 
made in 1997.

20. The Marjorie Ribbans case recorded above, she was illiterate and suffering from a terminal cancer, is now authority for the 
principle that if justices are aware that a debtor may be illiterate they are obliged to make some investigation into the whether 
the proceedings have come to the attention of the debtor. Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Over sixty years ago the 
Money Payments (Justices procedure) Act 1935, which had the effect of ensuring better notice of proceedings and allowing for 
inquiries into means halved the number of persons imprisoned for rates default from 3,089 in 1932 to 1,464 in 1936.

CONCLUSION

21. This review of cases in the last 10 years does not include examples where pensioners have been jailed and subsequently 
freed on bail granted by the High Court with the justices or the local authority subsequently settling cases by way of consent. 
Accurate figures are hard to come by no estimate is available as to the precise number of elderly people jailed for sums owed in 
local taxes or of the number of cases where suspended warrants have been issued or where debts have been remitted entirely.

22. In practice, some courts appear to take the view payment may be achieved by committing a pensioner in the belief that a 
family member or a friend will provide the money to secure the release of the debtor from prison. Numerous examples are 
known to the author. Apart from such an event demonstrating that the debtor does indeed lack the means to pay and that the 
means inquiry has been flawed, this practice is contrary to the analogous principles in fine enforcement as in  Charalambous 
(1984) Cr App Rep 389 whereby imposing a fine which is paid by other family members is unjust.

23. Certain dwellings occupied by certain elderly and disabled residents are already wholly exempt from council tax in 
recognition of the difficulties that the elderly may face. There seems no reason why similar intelligent reforms could be made 
with respect to the enforcement of local taxes against those who have failed to pay. The system has shown repeatedly that it 
cannot distinguish being those who can and cannot pay and those who blameworthy and those debtors who are wholly 
innocent.

24. Although 100% council tax benefit exists for pensioners in receipt of income support, there are many others who find 
themselves on the threshold of poverty and those who, for whatever reason, cannot meet ordinary household expenditure or 
cope with local authorities. Whilst there have been substantial moves to change discrimination on grounds of sex and race, a 
degree of  social prejudice clearly exists against the poor, including the elderly poor. What else can explain the failure to 
conduct inquiries or the imposition of the maximum 3 month sentences on people with no means?

25. One of the biggest problem is that justices become emotionally involved in committal proceedings. The author has often 
witnessed cases where justices seem to take non-payment and the often inarticulate statements by the persons before them as 
defiance in the face of the court. The temptation develops to impose imprisonment as a punishment. This danger was expressed 
in R v Watford Justices ex p Hudson (1999) CO/4261/98  where Ognall warned a magistrates' court "....must always be 
scrupulous in not becoming exasperated for allowing what they perceive as a degree of fecklessness in the person before them 
to cloud their judgement as to what is fair and proper." A study of the psychology in decision making in this area is perhaps long 
overdue.

26. Ultimately, should our prison system really be destination for pensioners who are often suffering from illness or disability ?


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