This piece was originally published by The Justice Gap.

As many as one in five council tax imprisonments (18%) per year could be unlawful, according to a High Court judgment handed down in Cardiff this week. Lord Justice Hickinbottom outlined that in between 9.5% and 18% of such cases, debtors may be wrongfully imprisoned as a result of simple mistakes.

‘The price of ignorance in these cases is simply too high,’ said Naima Sakande, a women’s justice advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals. ‘The judgment has exposed some deep failings in the council tax system.’ Last year, the BBC reported that almost 5,000 people in council tax arrears were taken to court and threatened with imprisonment in 2016-17.

Analysing the cases of 95 people sent to prison from April 2016 to July 2017, Hickinbottom discovered that up to 17 convictions were unlawful because the court had ordered debt repayment over an excessive time period. The judgment points the finger at individual errors and oversights by magistrates in council tax cases, and encourages improvements in training and guidance.

With the support of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, Melanie Woolcock brought the judicial review that instigated this investigation. A single mother from Wales, Woolcock had missed her £10-a-week council tax debt repayments because she was too sick to work. Despite having paid £100 towards the £4,700 debt, she was sentenced to nearly three months in prison. Woolcock successfully challenged her conviction in January 2017, but by that point she had already served 40 days of her sentence.

Cathryn McGahey QC represented Woolcock in the judicial review proceedings she later decided to bring. Their aim was to prevent unlawful imprisonment in cases where people have fallen behind on council tax payments. Arguing that over half (52%) of council tax debt committals per year may be unlawful, McGahey suggested in court that the problem was systematic.

According to McGahey, two factors in particular may be contributing to high levels of unlawful imprisonment: flawed means assessments and the suggestion that ‘culpable neglect’ or ‘wilful refusal’ is responsible for many failures to pay.

Lord Justice Hickinbottom’s judgment paid heed to these submissions, commenting: ‘Ms McGahey appears to be right to condemn the relevant magistrates (and their legal advisers) as being ignorant of well-established law.’ However, the judgment maintained that the deficiencies were individual rather than systematic.

Assessing the judgment, Naima Sakande added: ‘The toll of being sent to prison unlawfully cannot be overstated and more must be done to protect society’s most vulnerable from needlessly losing their liberty. Poverty is not a crime and our judicial system needs to do more to acknowledge this.’