Magistrates and poll tax : LETTERS

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The Independent Online
From Mr David Wilding, JP Sir: Regarding your article sub-titled "Some magistrates are sending community charge defaulters to prison for up to three months" (23 January), in my experience as a magistrate, the option of sending defaulters to prison is thelast resort and is only used where there is a wilful refusal to pay. Both the enforcement officers of the council and magistrates are sympathetic to genuine cases where circumstances indicate real hardship. I have often heard of offers of as little as 50p a week being accepted to clear arrears, and one case where the Community Charge payer, through his mental incapacity, had his debt cancelled.

On occasions defaulters are sent to prison, but the custodial sentence is suspended if they make a reasonable offer to pay a small sum each and every week.

The Community Charge finished nearly two years ago, and it is reasonable to expect people to make some effort to clear their debt. In some cases defaulters have ignored all representations by enforcement officers to come to some form of arrangement. If they were in difficulties through illness, unemployment or break-up of marriage, there are benefits available to ease the burden.

We magistrates do not make the laws; we merely administer them fairly and with compassion. However, if defaulters wilfully refuse to pay and make no offer to settle the outstanding arrears, then we have no option but to imprison.

Yours faithfully, DAVID WILDING Bridge, Kent 24 January

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