Grantham-based debt advice provider PayPlan is calling for increased training for legal advisers and court staff after last week’s High Court ruling that up to 17 people in England and Wales were unlawfully imprisoned for council tax arrears in 2017.
While the court failed to declare this a ‘systematic failing’, it was acknowledged that a high number of errors and oversights were made by magistrates, resulting in these unlawful sentences.
PayPlan and the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) have been campaigning to abolish imprisonment for council tax debt across England and Wales, a practice that is already outlawed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the rest of Europe.
A report published by PayPlan and the IMA found that 99 out of 279 local authorities took court action for imprisonment against 4,817 people in 2016/17 – a rise of more than 10 per cent compared to 2012/13.
Head of advice sector policy and partnerships at PayPlan, Alistair Chisholm, said: “While the High Court acknowledgment of these unlawful sentences is a starting point, it’s clear there is still a lot of work to be done by magistrates to ensure cases related to council tax debt are handled in the correct manner.
“Our money advisers speak to callers every day who are struggling to pay basic costs because of relationship breakdowns, illness or unemployment. The threat of a custodial sentence only makes the situation worse for those already trying to make ends meet.”
Chief executive of the Institute of Money Advisers Robert Wilson, added: “Debt is complicated and officials need a professional understanding of the realities of living with financial difficulty.”