Aid for the defaulter

A ruling in the European Court may help poll tax avoiders stay out of jail. By Robert Verkaik

Poll tax day at any busy magistrates' court is a bit like a step back in time to the debtors' courts of the pre-legal aid days of Dickensian England.

As soon as the doors open, scores of unprepared defaulters mill into the courtroom hoping to persuade the justices of the merits of their own special circumstances. A lucky few might be accompanied by a Mackenzie friend or are able to afford legal advice. But the majority will find out the hard way that the court usually has little option but to find "culpable neglect" and commit the "wilful" poll tax defaulter to prison.

An important judgment last month in the European Court of Human Rights ruled that legal aid should now be available to people at risk of imprisonment for non-payment of poll tax.

The case was brought by 29-year-old Stephen Benham, who had been sentenced to 30 days in prison by magistrates of Poole, Dorset, for failing to pay his pounds 355 poll tax bill. He was supported by Liberty, the civil rights group.

Duncan Lustig-Prean, the group's deputy director, said: "In default cases there are fairly complicated and legalistic formulae on the matter of culpability and a complex calculation of means. Many people who represent themselves are completely at sea with this."

As a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, the Government must now decide how to follow the ruling. Mr Lustig-Prean believes there is no question of the Government not acting. "If they turn round and say poke off Europe they risk an enormous fine," he warns.

Jon Lloyd, co-chairman of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, has had many years' experience in magistrates' courts. He says: "I have felt uncomfortable that this has been allowed to go on without there being proper representation to canvas alternatives to prison."

The Law Society is now formulating its own response package to the ruling to help guide the Lord Chancellor's Department in its implementation.

Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, believes some courts are all too ready to use prison. "We wrote to the Lord Chancellor's Department many years ago to make sure people in this position could get representation. All that is needed is a simple regulation change to the duty solicitors scheme." As the scheme already covers fine defaulters, Mr Wallman believes it is only a loophole that prevents representation for those at risk of imprisonment for non-payment of poll tax. However, the Law Society does not see the need for "full blown" legal aid. "The duty solicitors scheme costs about pounds 50 per person and would therefore be the most economical way of providing representation," says Mr Wallman. It's unlikely that the new ruling will result in significantly more legal aid work for solicitors or likewise a huge rise in the legal aid budget.

But Mr Lloyd would like to see something more than just an extension of the duty solicitors scheme. Under Abwor (assistance by way of representation) legal aid can be granted for restricted representation in specific cases. This already covers disciplinary appearances before prison governors and certain situations in the Domestic Proceedings Act. While still not full legal aid, this would allow people to have their own choice of solicitor rather than the solicitor who happens to be on duty the day of the defaulter's court appearance.

"Before anything is finalised on this," says Mr Lloyd, "I would like to suggest this [a form of Abwor] as an alternative to just being dealt with by the duty solicitors scheme."

Liberty believes its victory in the European Court has already helped to stop the clock being turned back in our magistrates courts. "I don't think that in 1996 it's civilised for this society to go back to Dickensian times and the debtors' prison," says Mr Lustig-Prean.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick