When you can be sent to prison for your debts
Being sent to prison is a great fear for many people with serious debts. In most cases, it's very unlikely. A prison sentence is a last resort, and apart from fraud (see 'Fraud' below) it can happen only for specific types of debt. These include if you haven't paid:
- fines from the magistrates' court;
- your Council Tax or business rates: or
- maintenance for your husband, wife or children.
You can be sent to prison only if the magistrates believe that you 'won't pay' rather than 'can't pay' your debts (that is, you have deliberately refused to pay, or you have chosen to spend the money on other things you didn't truly need).
If this is the case, the court will probably make a 'suspended committal order'. This means that the magistrates will set an amount for you to pay each week or month. You will be sent to prison only if you miss any of these payments. If that happens, you will be sent a warrant to be arrested and brought before the magistrates. You cannot be sent to prison without another hearing, although you may be put in police cells overnight.
If you receive a warrant, you should:
- get expert advice, if you can;
- prepare a personal budget statement by setting out all your income, expenses (what you spend your money on) and debts;
- contact the person who issued the warrant and ask them when you need to attend the police or magistrates' court.
Sometimes, if your debt is a fine you have not paid, the magistrates will ask you to spend the whole day at court to satisfy the committal order, so you should make any necessary arrangements, such as childcare, before you go.
It is very important to realise that at the committal stage, even for non-criminal debts such as Council Tax or business rates, you have the right for a lawyer to speak for you even if you cannot afford to pay for one. The magistrate should give you time to speak to a duty solicitor at the court before they hear your case. This is important because, before any committal order is made, the court has the right to write off ('remit') all or part of your debt if it feels this is the right thing to do in your case. Your solicitor may be able to show them reasons for doing this, as well as preventing you getting a committal order.
If your debt is due to crime such as fraud, then a prosecution for this could lead to prison. Examples include fraudently applying for state benefit, or taking credit when you have no intention of repaying it. If you are accused of fraud you should see a criminal law solicitor. An unfair accusation of fraud or a threat of prosecution from a creditor may well amount to harassment.
Additional sections in the Community Legal Advice leaflet 'Dealing with Debt':
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- Community Legal Advice