Letter: Jailed for fine and debt default

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The Independent Online
Sir: Both the Independent and Alex Carlile MP should be congratulated for taking up the issue of the jailing of the poor and vulnerable for fine default, resulting in a Bill going before Parliament (8 May). But close attention must be paid to this Bill to ensure that it also covers those jailed for civil debts - particularly unpaid poll tax and council tax.

The record of magistrates' courts across England and Wales since 1990 - many cases having been featured in the Independent and on television - raises serious doubts as to whether magistrates should ever be allowed to lock up anyone for simple failure to pay a debt or fine. Probably not since the witch trials have so many elderly, disabled or vulnerable people been before the courts as has happened with the poll tax and its successor the council tax. But this situation will not be affected if the proposed Bill limits itself to criminal fines.

A person jailed for a civil debt actually has fewer rights than a convicted criminal imprisoned for defaulting on a fine of the same amount. A civil debtor is not entitled to legal aid. Senior figures in government have been aware of the unlawful jailing of civil debtors since the abolition of the poll tax in 1993, but the response has been nothing other than "buck passing" between the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and Secretary of State for the Environment.

Alan Murdie

London SW15