Woolcock of Porthcawl, Wales, had been unemployed after working part-time in a sports shop. She had told her solicitor that she struggled to make household payments and prioritised her rent, gas, electricity and food bills.
Her appeal was taken up by law firm Ahmed Rahman Carr and solicitor Sam Genen of the London-based Centre for Criminal Appeals (CCA), who has been investigating similar cases.
Around 100 people are imprisoned each year in England and Wales for failure to pay council tax debts. Many decisions, according to Genen, involve desperately poor people falling into severe debt and are subsequently overturned on appeal.
Woolcock was supporting her 17-year-old son when she fell behind on her council tax payments. She was arrested on 8 August 2016 despite making a payment towards her outstanding debt days earlier.
She served 40 days of her prison term before the CCA challenged her detention and persuaded the high court to release her.
In a judgment released on Wednesday, Mr Justice Lewis concluded: “The magistrates’ court failed to carry out a proper and adequate means inquiry as required … and were not in a position to determine if non-payment was the result of culpable neglect nor whether the orders were appropriate mechanisms for enforcing the debt.”
He also observed that there was little evidence that the child’s position had been considered by the court.
The CCA is preparing to intervene in a judicial review of the legality of the current system by which people are committed to prison for non-payment of council tax.
Helen Ball, a researcher at the CCA, has identified and reviewed 145 cases since 1980 where a person’s committal to prison for non-payment of dues such as fines, council tax and the community charge has been ruled unlawful in the high court.
She said: “Magistrates have often incorrectly concluded that there’s been culpable neglect or a wilful refusal to pay. Moreover, magistrates have regularly failed to properly assess a person’s ability to pay and to consider reasonable alternatives to prison.”