Can you go to prison for debt

Posted by Barry Stamp in Dealing with Debt on 22 August 2018 - Barry is Managing Director at checkmyfile

The short answer is: yes, you can go to prison for debt, but only if you fail to pay your council tax, any magistrates fines, TV license or fees relating to a motoring offense, and even then there are plenty of methods that are usually tried before a prison sentence is carried out.

Here's a look at what you need to do to make sure it never reaches that stage, either for yourself or a loved one.

Ignoring Court Summons

It should go without saying, but don’t ignore a court summons. In particular, if a creditor has obtained judgment against you, and doesn’t know what their next step should be, they may ask to have you examined under oath at the Court to declare your assets, income and liabilities. In the Courts of England and Wales, it’s called an Order to Obtain Information (previously called an ‘Oral Examination). Over 30,000 such orders are made every year.

Some diehard debtors just ignore the summons to attend the court. Creditors don’t always insist that the court officers issue a warrant for their arrest for non-appearance as the person is in contempt of court. But just occasionally, it does happen, an arrest order is issued and the person is imprisoned. Furthermore, you won’t prevent a judgment from being issued by not turning up to court and CCJs can be issued in someone’s absence, so it’s not worth risking incarceration.

Motoring offence/TV licence fees

If you have a fine for a motoring offence, TV licence, or similar fine levied by a Magistrates’ Court, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are circumstances when you can be committed to prison for non-payment.

There are safeguards to prevent this happening. For example, you cannot be committed to prison without having attended a hearing giving you the opportunity to explain your financial circumstances.

The Magistrates’ Court must have exhausted all other options and finally must then determine that you have gone out of your way deliberately to avoid paying the debt, called willful refusal, or alternatively must establish that you have been either careless or thoughtless in not paying, called culpable neglect.

You can be handed down a suspended sentence or be committed to prison immediately. A suspended sentence is usually given subject to you making payments at a level ordered by the Court, and if you fail to make these payments, you will be ordered to attend another Court hearing. If you can’t prove that your financial position is so dire that you couldn’t afford to pay the fine, then you’re likely to be sent to jail.

Avoiding court

It’s good to know that prison is the last resort for non-payment of debt, but as with many things, prevention is often the most effective defence. Our Debt Advice Centre gives you a simple explanation of the many options available to all debt-stressed people, and the general rule is that the earlier help is sought, the more options are available, and the easier things will be.

Even if you have had a County Court Judgment or High Court Judgment (or two or more) made against you, if you clear this in full within a calendar month, get a receipt, and make an application to the Court to have the judgment removed from the official register, it will not appear on your Credit Report.

If you could not afford to pay the sum in full, the judgment will be cleared automatically from your Credit Report after six years, and after around 3 or 4 years will impact your credit rating progressively less. You can check your Multi Agency Credit Report for free at checkmyfile to see the status of any previous judgments made against you. It’s free for 30 days, then just £14.99 per month, which you can cancel online, by email or by phone.

Updated 22/08/2018 by Jamie Mackenzie Smith

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