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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)”, [2017] 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 evidence did not support the proposition which Ms Woolcock sought to establish (paras 93-94); indeed “neither the numbers nor the proportion of cases in which that error was made, without more, in my view comes close to being sufficient to draw the inference that there is a problem inherent within the system” (para 94).

- 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.