This project will develop greater understanding of the methods of enforcement used by local authorities to collect arrears of public debts, focusing on council tax as the largest source of public debt and a significant factor in all indebtedness in the UK. In contrast to the enforcement of private debts, public enforcement procedures are influenced by a tension between conflicting motivations of those seeking to collect the debt, in this case local authorities. As public creditors they are concerned both with generation of income for their community by maintaining maximum council tax collection rates, but this objective is arguably inextricable from their wider duty to protect vulnerable people in the community with challenging circumstances and limited capacity to pay. This is a complex social and legal issue and an academically neglected area of law.
Following the issuing of a liability order by the Magistrates’ Court, local authorities are permitted to use a range of enforcement methods to recover arrears of council tax. The final option for a local authority who has been unable to recover arrears through any other method is to apply for a warrant of committal of the debtor to prison for up to three months. For local authorities seeking full payment of council tax this is the most extreme and invasive tool in their arsenal and is commonly described as a ‘last resort’. The sanction has been used consistently, albeit in a small number of cases each year. Following a public consultation on its suitability, this sanction was removed by the Welsh Government with effect from April 2019, being described by the First Minister as ‘an outdated and disproportionate response to a civil debt issue’.
This project seeks to develop proposals for fairer council tax enforcement by providing case study findings on the use of committal in Wales. My key research questions are: –
Why was committal to prison used as an enforcement method for council tax in Wales from 1992 to 2019?
How will the removal of committal influence enforcement of council tax in Wales?