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Masthead Local Govt - Governance and Risk

Imprisonment for council tax arrears

Money iStock 000008683901XSmall 146x219The Divisional Court has ruled on a systemic public law challenge to the enforcement of council tax by committal prison. Tim Buley explains the judgment.

In R (Woolcock) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2018] EWHC 17 (Admin) the Divisional Court has rejected a claim for judicial review which argued that the system for enforcement of Council Tax by committal to prison was systematically unlawful.

The Claimant, who had successfully challenged her own committal to prison in earlier proceedings (Woolcock (No1) [2017] EWHC 34 (Admin)), argued that the number of errors in the system showed that there was a more general problem. In rejecting the systemic challenge the Divisional Court gave important further guidance on the nature and limits of “systemic” public law challenges established by cases such as Detention Action [2015] 1 WLR 5341 (where the court had held that the system of fast-track asylum appeals was unlawful because it failed to give adequate safeguards against unfairness so as to produce a problem with the system as a whole).

In rejecting the Claimant’s argument the Divisional undertook a detailed analysis of the earlier case law and set out ten key principles to be extracted from it (para 69). In doing so the court accepted the argument for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (adopted by the other defendants), and rejected the Claimant’s argument that systemic unfairness could be demonstrated by an accumulation of errors without showing something “inherent” in the system.

It also rejected the Claimant’s argument that it was legitimate to consider a claim of systemic unfairness without identifying a public law act or omission for which a particular public body bears responsibility. On the facts the court held that the claimant had failed to show systemic unfairness of a kind for which any of the defendants (Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government, for Justice, and the Welsh Government) bore responsibility, and rejected the claim that the secondary legislation promulgated by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was unlawful in any way.

Tim Buley is a barrister at Landmark Chambers. He acted for the successful Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

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