A retired vicar who refused to pay council tax on a matter of principle has won a High Court victory over excessive costs.
Anti-poverty campaigner Paul Nicolson, 82, took a stand after discovering that millions of poor people could be getting unfair bills for costs run up by local authorities who take action to collect unpaid council tax.
Mr Nicolson, a retired Anglican vicar and veteran of the poll tax protests, took legal action after complaining that magistrates ruling on allegations of council tax non-payment were failing to check the accuracy of costs bills.
He claimed that the figures run up by his Labour-controlled London Borough of Haringey were being wrongly “lumped on” to legal costs bills and were a “penalty” unfairly imposed on the poor, in a case he said had national implications.
“I'm delighted,” said Mr Nicolson after the ruling. “It's game, set and match to the poor.”
He added: “I'm not a socialist. I'm a Christian. All I do is state the facts on poverty.”
For 16 years until 1999, Mr Nicolson was the real life Vicar of Dibley – the priest in the rural parish of Turville, Buckinghamshire, where Richard Curtis set his sitcom about a hapless female vicar.
The pensioner who moved to Tottenham in north London, had sold champagne before joining the church and fighting against unfair taxation. He said he began litigation in this case after not paying a council tax bill as a matter of principle.
He was then issued with a summons for non-payment of council tax by Haringey Council before magistrates in Tottenham made a 'liability order' against him and ordered him to pay £125 costs. He then asked a High Court judge to declare that magistrates failed to check the accuracy of the costs bill. Bosses at Haringey Council disputed his allegations, but Mrs Justice Andrews, who analysed evidence in a hearing at the High Court in London last month, ruled in Mr Nicolson's favour.
Mrs Justice Andrews said she had concluded that magistrates in Tottenham had not had “relevant information” before them when making a costs order against Mr Nicolson.
Mr Nicolson said he had mounted the challenge because a £125 costs bill was a “very big penalty” on top of “the inevitable council tax arrears” generated by thousands of benefits claimants in Haringey.And he said the case had nationwide implications because about three million liability orders were granted by magistrates every year to councils in England and Wales.
Mr Nicolson added: “The related question is - what is the point of enforcing the council tax against people whose incomes are so low that they cannot pay?”
A Haringey Council spokesperson said: “We accept the court’s decision to quash the costs order in this case as magistrates did not have the relevant information before them.
“We welcome that the judge accepted our broad approach to calculating costs to cover legal proceedings. We will now consider this ruling in greater detail.”