THE POLL TAX: Courts jail civil debtors unlawfully

Some magistrates are sending community charge defaulters to prison for up to three months
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Magistrates are unlawfully sending to jail increasing numbers of people facing financial hardship and falling into arrears with their poll tax and council tax.

Despite their decisions being overturned by the High Court, almost as a matter of course, magistrates are continuing to use their powers to imprison low income people who are not criminals but civil debtors. Magistrates are also sending people to jail for longer periods.

In the year ending March 94, 1,202 people were sent to jail for non-payment. The previous year it was 704 and for the year ending March 1992, 169. Only 10 people had been sent to jail the previous year.

The average sentence in 1992 was 27 days. It is now 32 days with some magistrates imprisoning people for three months. Last week the bench at Lincoln jailed for nine days a young mother who owed £22 - she was freed two days later on the orders of a High Court judge.

In August last year, Easington magistrates in Co Durham sentenced Robert Graham, a 74-year-old former miner, to 31 days. Unable to care for himself, he had been taken into a local authority residential home suffering from malnutrition. He had also falleninto poll tax arrears, was arrested by police at the council home and taken before magistrates who sent him to jail.

And in October, Bolton justices sent Patricia Bradshaw, 46, and a mother of four, to jail for 28 days. Her 21-year-old son, physically and mentally disabled, is dependent on her care.

The cases are not isolated. A study of 143 granted leave for judicial review, carried out by Rona Epstein, of Coventry University, and Ian Wise, a barrister, found 56 people were on income support, 20 received other benefits, 19 had no income at all, 10 had serious physical disabilities, five suffered mental disability and 27 had serious illnesses ranging from epilepsy through to arthritis and asthma.

So far nearly 100 of those have been declared unlawful by High Court judges - a success rate of about 95 per cent compared with an average judicial review success rate against magistrates of around 15 per cent.

The High Court has said that magistrates' powers to jail are to enforce payment, not to punish, and that they should only be used as a last resort. "Despite this stream of recent authorities, magistrates are continuing to make the same errors and continue in increasing numbers to punish the vulnerable," the study concludes.

One of the main reasons is that council tax and poll tax defaulters have fewer rights than criminals. There is no legal aid - meaning the poor and often those with learning disabilities have to represent themselves at hearings they do not understand; there is no requirement for pre-sentence reports so magistrates are often unaware of the full impact of their penalty; there are no "public interest" considerations which in criminal cases allow for decisions not to prosecute, for example, the elderly; andthere is no appeal - apart from judicial review.

Yesterday, Ms Epstein said: "What is going on is outrageous. Every day in the local paper you can read of criminal cases where people convicted of taking and driving away, assault, credit card fraud and criminal damage are being placed on probation - yetpeople with little or no income who try but fail to pay their local tax are going to prison. And the cost of imprisonment at about £450 a week is far more than most people's debt."

Mr Wise, who has taken hundreds of such cases to the High Court, said: "The time has come . . . to put an end to this appalling catalogue of injustice.''