New guidelines for JPs aim to curb poll tax jailings

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The Independent Online
New guidelines are to be issued to magistrates on how to deal with poll tax debtors following repeated criticism in the High Court over a series of unlawful jailings.

The Magistrates' Association announced the move last night after a High Court judge criticised magistrates at Hyndburn, Lancashire, for imposing "unlawful" jail sentences on two unemployed defaulters.

Mr Justice Turner blamed the mistakes on the "woeful" lack of training and legal guidance for magistrates.

He echoed earlier warnings to magistrates that they should not jail debtors as a punishment, only to coerce payment. He said it was a "melancholy" fact that there had been a long line of cases of wrongful imprisonment of those who had failed to pay the community charge.

"The court is left to infer that magistrates have not had the benefit of the best legal advice when coming to their decisions to order immediate commitment [to prison]," he said.

His ruling comes amid growing concern that magistrates are jailing an increasing number of people facing hardship and falling into poll tax arrears.

Last year, 1,202 people were jailed for non-payment compared to 169 in 1992. In a recent study of 143 cases sent for judicial review, more than 100 have so far been declared unlawful by the High Court. Hundreds of outstanding cases of debt are still to come before the courts.

Mr Justice Turner was speaking in the case of Keith Pollard, 28, who was wrongly sentenced to 70 days in jail by Hyndburn magistrates as a "punishment" for not paying his tax. In the case of David Dewett, 23, the same magistrates had failed to make proper inquiries about his debt and his ability to pay before sending him to prison.

Rosemary Thomson, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "We note the comments of Mr Justice Turner, but it would not be right to infer from his findings that magistrates throughout the country are not being adequately advised by the court clerks or properly trained. Nonetheless, the Magistrates' Association is concerned and intends to issue guidelines to magistrates regarding their powers on this matter as soon as possible."