Can I be sent to prison?
One of the most frequent enquiries that we receive is: ‘Can I be sent to prison’. In very rare cases a local Council may apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a warrant committing a person to prison in the event of non-payment of Council Tax. The Council will only ever take this very exceptional step when all other efforts to enforce the Liability Order have failed. Committal proceedings rely on two very specific grounds; either wilful refusal or culpable neglect.
What is wilful refusal?
This is where a person refuses to pay the council tax debt (when they are financially able to do so). For example; if you have financial difficulties but had written to the council (or bailiff company) to outline your circumstances and to make a sensible payment proposal and in particular, one that would clear the debt before the start of the new council tax year (April) then the local authority would have great difficulty convincing a court that you are refusing to pay. This is why it is so important to write to the local authority (or bailiff company) outlining a payment proposal. In doing so; you then have documentary proof that you are not refusing to pay.
What is culpable neglect?
Culpable Neglect is very difficult for a local authority to prove. Let us assume that you had recently purchased a new car or had just returned from an expensive holiday. You may find that you do not have enough money to then pay your council tax. The local authority could then issue a Liability Order. Using this scenario, the local authority could accuse you of culpable neglect. In simple terms; it is where a person neglects to pay a ‘priority debt’ (such as council tax) and instead; spends money on ‘non priority’ items or goods (such as a holiday etc).
What steps must the local authority take before considering committal proceedings?
Before issuing a warrant of commitment, the court must hold a ‘means enquiry’ and you must be present. The summons would tell you the date on which you need to attend. If you fail to respond to the Summons the local authority will in most cases request that the court issue a warrant for your arrest. When you attend a ‘means enquiry’ you will be required to complete a very simple Income & Expenditure calculation. This is so that the Magistrate may consider an affordable payment arrangement as an alternative to committal.
The bailiff told me that I could be sent to prison.
For the avoidance of doubt, bailiffs/enforcement agents must not make such threats and to do so, is a serious abuse of Item 10 of the Taking Control of Goods National Standards for Enforcement Agents 2014. Such a threat is also grounds for a Formal Complaint to the local authority.
Note from Bailiff Advice
If you have any queries about council tax enforcement or are experiencing difficulty in getting a payment agreement accepted by the bailiff company, you can email a question to Bailiff Advice using our very popular Question page. Alternatively, you can contact us by phone. Details are on our Contact page.
A simple overview of the new Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 including details of bailiff fees, notices that must be given by the bailiff and items that are ‘exempt’ from being taken into control can be read here.