The Divisional Court has rejected a judicial review claim contending that the system for enforcement of liability for unpaid council tax by way of imprisonment, as currently operated by magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, is unfair and unlawful. The Claimant, Ms Woolcock,
was imprisoned on 8 August 2016 for non-payment under a suspended committal
order. She was released on bail on 17
September 2016 and succeeded in an initial judicial review challenge on the
facts of her own case (see “Woolcock (No 1)”,  EWHC 34 (Admin)).
Ms Woolcock then brought a further challenge, arguing that the whole system for committal for non-payment was unfair and unlawful (“Woolcock (No 2)”). For the purpose of this second claim, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State for Justice and the Welsh Ministers were joined as Defendants. The Divisional Court (Hickinbottom LJ and Lewis J) rejected this “systemic” claim. The Judgment of the Divisional Court:
- Sets out an extended summary
of the relevant principles as to the proper exercise of the power to commit for
non payment of council tax (paras 17, 19-29).
- Gives detailed consideration
to the six main Court of Appeal cases since 2004 dealing with systemic
challenges by way of judicial review (paras 49-67).
- Lays down ten key principles
to be extracted from those authorities (para 68).
- Holds that the Court was “entirely unpersuaded that there is any basis here for a systemic challenge by way of judicial review” (para 91), in particular because:
- The risk of substantive unfairness identified by Ms Woolcock did not arise out of the systemic procedures themselves, but rather arose “in the ordinary course of individual decision-making in that magistrates simply fail to comply with the requirements of the scheme” (paras 95-101).
- Accepts that the Secretary of
State for Justice “clearly cannot be held
responsible for aberrant decisions of magistrates” (para 102).
James Segan acted as sole counsel for the Secretary of State for Justice.
Click here for the full judgment.