“Can you go to prison if you fail to pay your council tax?” 

What really happens if you don’t pay your council tax?

With so many people falling into council tax arrears each year, it’s no surprise that this question gets asked a lot. We explain everything there is to know about not keeping up with your council tax, liability orders, court summons and prison. 

We’ll even discuss if you have to pay your council tax if you’re in prison. 

Let’s dive straight into it…

Can you go to jail for not paying council tax?

The Local Government Finance Act 1992 states that people can be sent to prison for up to 90 days for council tax debts. However, Regulation 47 states that imprisonment should only be considered when the offender wilfully neglects the debt or willfully refuses.

Thus, not being able to afford the bill on its own does not mean you should be sent to prison. If you cannot afford to enter into any payment arrangement because you are only receiving state benefits, then you have probably not willfully refused. This not a reason to not pay your council tax.

Whether you have willfully neglected or refused to make a payment will be a matter of fact and judged on a case-by-case basis. If it happens that you were seen to wilfully reject making a payment then you could be sent to prison. 

But remember…

Prison is only a real possibility if you fail to pay your council tax, or engage with enforcement agents after you received a council tax liability order from a court judge. This means it can only happen late in the process of recovering the costs you owe. 

At this late stage, the council will then apply for a committal hearing at a Magistrates’ Court. 

You will not need to attend the Magistrates’ Court if you pay the money owed before the hearing. 

If you do not pay the amount you owe, you must attend the court to defend yourself and explain to a judge why you have still not paid.

If you do not attend when you should have, a warrant for your arrest may be issued. 

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What is the total amount of your debt?

How many people get sent to prison for these debts?

Recent data suggests around 51 people each year are sent to prison for not clearing their council tax debts. 

The Guardian reported in 2019 that in the six years previous, 305 people had been handed prison sentences for not paying council tax debts

On many of these occasions, it is believed that they were wrongfully sent to prison because they were experiencing financial hardship rather than willingly neglecting their legal liability to pay. 

Do you pay your council tax if you are in prison?

If you’re leaving a home empty while you’re in prison, you can usually apply to not pay your council tax during your sentence.

However, if you are serving a prison sentence because of avoiding local authority tax, you will still be subject to council tax payments while in prison.

You can read the full details on the GOV website here

What happens if you don’t pay your council tax?

As we’ve explained, prison is only possible as a last resort after many other attempts to get you to pay, including court summons. To illustrate the process better, here is what happens if you do not pay:

  1. Payment Request

They will try to collect debts by sending a reminder showing the balance you owe through missed payments. 

The full amount must be paid within seven days. If you do not pay or make an arrangement to pay using a repayment plan, they might then send another reminder or ask you to pay the full remaining balance on your annual account. 

Any second letter will be a final notice; it will threaten legal recovery action if you ignore them again.

  1. Council tax court summons

If you do ignore the final notice, the council might start county court proceedings to get a judge to force you to pay. If the judge does rule you have to pay, they grant a liability order. The liability order is valid for life, meaning you will need to pay or agree on affordable repayments based on your income. 

You have a right to pay your council tax by instalments at this stage. 

  1. Council bailiffs

If you still refuse to pay after a liability order, the council could then use a bailiff company to collect the debt, also known as enforcement officers, to request payment or a payment plan. 

First, the bailiff company will send you a letter asking you to pay within seven working days (incl. Saturdays) or they will come to your property to seize valuable goods. This is a Notice of Enforcement and an opportunity to enter into a repayment arrangement and not have to deal with them on your doorstep. 

If you do not pay or enter into a payment arrangement, the bailiff can enter an unlocked property or come through an open door (not a window!) but they cannot force entry to your home. 

They may ask you to pay the amount shown on your bill before taking control of goods, but at this stage they do not have to accept a repayment plan.

Bailiff fees can be astronomical, adding hundreds of pounds to your debts. Their costs cover removal services and related costs such as storage. It is best to negotiate in the period before their intended arrival to avoid these fees. 

  1. Magistrates’ Court 

If the bailiffs do not get you to pay the full amount or make an arrangement to pay another way, further action will be taken by the council. 

They will apply for a hearing at the Magistrates’ Court where you will be asked why you have not followed the liability order requesting you have not managed to pay the full amount or agree to a repayment arrangement. 

You will first receive a court summons explaining the process and providing you with the court hearing date. The court summons will arrive in a letter. You should attend court if you have not paid in full by this stage. 

At the court hearing, the judge will ask why the liability order has not been kept to. If you want to avoid going to prison for not clearing your local authority debts, you will need to show that you have not willfully neglected or refused your debts.  

You can benefit from legal representation at the court hearing. 

If the judge believes you have willfully neglected or refused to pay, they can sentence you to up to 90 days in prison.  

If you ignore the court summons, this is when an arrest warrant could be issued. 

Pay your Council Tax Debt FAQs

Can you go to prison for council tax debt?

You can be sent to prison for up to 90 days if you do not pay your council tax, although this is rare and a last resort. 

How can I reduce my bill?

You can reduce your council tax bill in many circumstances. For example, if you receive income support, support allowance, pension credit, universal credit or live alone, you might be allowed to claim deductions. 

What is a liability order?

A liability order is something issued by a county court judge when you have not paid your council debts. The liability order makes you liable for the amount you owe in debt and it never expires. 

What are bailiff costs?

The enforcement company can charge you for their service, even if it’s a service you don’t like. The costs can be huge and the end bill is usually around £400 or more. These costs are paid within your total debts owed. 

What is a court summons?

A court summons tells someone being taken to court when they need to attend court to make their defence. If you have received a court summons to the Magistrates’ Court, you should attend the court or risk the possibility of having an arrest warrant issued in your name. 

Do I have to attend court?

If you fail to pay the full amount after receiving a court summons to a Magistrates’ Court, you should attend the court to avoid a potential arrest warrant. 

How can you pay?

You can pay the full amount you owe in one payment, or you can pay in instalments to make the debt more affordable. If you choose the latter option, make sure your payments on time or you could receive a court summons.  

When should I make an arrangement to pay?

You should make an arrangement to pay in instalments when given the option, unless you know there has been an admin error or mistake. Debt recovery can become expensive when enforcement officers get involved, and agreeing to affordable payments will save you money.

You can pay what you owe using debt solutions too, such as an IVA or Debt Relief Order. And some of these may help you clear the debt without having to repay everything owed on your account. 

Can enforcement officers force entry?

Enforcement officers cannot force entry to recover the debt. But they can stand in open doorways and walk through unlocked entrances. In no situation can one of these professionals physically harm you. 

Get help from a charity!

Last but not least, always speak to a charity if you want help dealing with any of the above. Their team can help you claim the appropriate deductions and offer some support through legal processes. 

And don’t forget that we are always here to provide valuable information and answers to the most common debtor questions! 

Search our site for contact information to charities and other helpful guides. 

About the author

Scott Nelson

Scott Nelson is a financial services expert, with over 10 years’ experience in the industry, including 6 years in FCA regulated companies. Read more
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