Justices to pay costs of poll tax jailing review Magistrates told to pay costs of jailing review

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The Independent Online
For the second successive day, magistrates have come under fire from the High Court for unlawfully jailing poll-tax defaulters facing financial hardship. And in a rare move, Mr Justice Scheimann ordered magistrates in Middleton, Greater Manchester , to pay the costs of judicial review proceedings.

They had illegally jailed Arthur Tilley, 56, suffering angina and living on £44 a week benefit. He had fallen into arrears of about £500 but had offered to pay it off at £2.30 a week.

Even when their decisions are overturned by the High Court, magistrates do not incur costs except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

But there has been mounting concern that magistrates were ignoring numerous similar High Court rulings and continuing to send debtors to jail. Numbers imprisoned increased six-fold to 1,202 last year. Only last week, Lincoln magistrates jailed a young mother suffering post-natal depression for a debt of £22. Jane Count was freed on the orders of a High Court judge and is now awaiting a judicial review.

A study of 143 cases - 100 of which have already been declared unlawful - found that many were on income support, some suffered mental and physical disability or illness and nearly all were in extreme financial difficulties.

On Wednesday, the Magistrates' Association announced it would issue new guidelines to members after a High Court judge blamed lack of training and unsound legal advice for the string of poll tax reviews.

But yesterday, Richard Wise, who represents both Ms Count and Mr Tilley said: "Unfortunately, despite the body of case law confirming they have been acting unlawfully, I think it is only going to be the awarding of costs against magistrates that is goingto persuade some of them to behave less arrogantly and assess their position properly."

In the House of Lords yesterday, the Government said those suffering severe mental disability and living alone would be exempt from the council tax. Lord Ullswater, the environment minister, told peers: "The Government is conscious of the particular needs of disabled people."

But Lord Rix, chairman of the Mencap charity, raised the issue of jailing community charge debtors with disabilities. He said: "There must be something seriously wrong with a situation whereby a man who is both physically and mentally handicapped and suffering from cancer can be jailed for 28 days."

Baroness Williams of Crosby raised the issue of single mothers being jailed without provision made for care of their children. The country was in danger of "reverting to ... debtors' prisons", she said.