The European Commission of Human Rights ruled on Friday that unemployed Stephen Benham, 29, who served 11 days in prison in 1990 for failing to pay the tax, should have been given legal aid to defend himself. The High Court later ordered that Mr Benham had been unlawfully imprisoned by magistrates.
John Wadham, legal director of Liberty, said yesterday that the ruling required the Government to change the law: "They will have to, first of all, have a system of compensation for people who have been unlawfully detained in poll tax cases. And secondlythey will have to set up a system of legal aid so that when a person is at risk of losing their liberty in a magistrates' court then there will have to be some system of legal aid so lawyers can represent people."
But he added: "Strasbourg isn't saying you can't be imprisoned for not paying your tax. What they're saying is that if you are imprisoned and it is then clear in courts in this country that the decision was unlawful - that you were wrongly detained, wrongly put in prison, or that you didn't have adequate legal advice - then that's a violation of human rights and you should be entitled to compensation and there must be a legal aid system."
The ruling, which was brought as a test case by the pressure group, Liberty, could have very serious implications for the Government, which is trying to curb the legal aid budget. The judgment means that legal aid will have to be made available to all poll or council tax debtors facing possible imprisonment.
More than 1,000 people were jailed last year alone for non-payment - despite High Court orders that their imprisonment may be illegal. Many have since been declared unlawful. More than 1,000 people are thought to be in the same position as Mr Benham, andtherefore, according to the Commission ruling, eligible for compensation.
Mr Benham was sentenced to 30 days in jail by magistrates in Poole, Dorset, in 1991 for failing to pay £355 in poll tax.
The magistrates ruled that because he had given up his job after becoming eligible to pay the tax in March 1990 his failure to pay was "due to culpable neglect". The Commission ruled that the jailing was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article Five states that if a person is unlawfully imprisoned then he or she is entitled to compensation. The Government has said that its lawyers will contest the decision.Reuse content