Single mother unlawfully jailed for council tax debt, High Court rules

Melanie Woolcock struggled to make payments because she prioritised paying rent, gas, electricity and buying food for her 17-year-old son

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Thursday 19 January 2017 20:33
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Mr Justice Lewis found a previous court ruling had failed to assess her financial means
Mr Justice Lewis found a previous court ruling had failed to assess her financial means

A single mother was unlawfully sentenced to 81 days in prison after she fell behind on council tax payments, the High Court has ruled.

After losing her job Melanie Woolcock accrued more than £4,700 in council tax arrears.

She had been ordered to pay off the debt at a rate of £10 a week but she said she was too unwell to continue working in a sports shop, and struggled to pay rent and feed herself and her teenage son.

After she failed to keep up instalments, Bridgend magistrates ordered her imprisonment on 18 July last year.

She spent 40 days in jail before the Centre for Criminal Appeals (CCA) challenged her detention and she was released on bail.

Mr Justice Lewis found that a previous court ruling had failed to assess her financial means and dismissed a previous assertion that her missed payments were due to “culpable neglect.”

Ms Woolcock from Porthcawl, Wales, said she had barely enough money to buy food for herself and her 17-year-old son.

In a court statement she explained she had struggled to make the payments because she prioritised paying her rent, gas, electricity and buying food.

The court heard she paid £100 towards the outstanding debt in August but bailiffs said it was "too late" as the warrant for committal had already been issued.

Mr Justice Lewis said during his ruling: “The magistrates’ court failed to carry out a proper and adequate means inquiry as required … and were not in a position to determine if non-payment was the result of culpable neglect nor whether the orders were appropriate mechanisms for enforcing the debt.”

He also found there was little evidence to suggest her son’s position had been considered by the court.

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