Amongst the arguments often raised against “short” custodial sentences are that fines defaulters should not be imprisoned. This is often coupled with a story of an old age pensioner imprisoned for refusing to pay her council tax because she doesn`t believe her taxes should be used for this or for that purpose. Indeed refusal to pay council tax is a not uncommon form of rebellion against the state employed by those whose arrogance is equalled only by their ignorance.
Courts impose custody only when the matter is so serious that there is no alternative. Without such a deterrent anarchy would be the result. There are two grounds on which a court can impose immediate custody for fine defaulters; wilful refusal to pay or culpable neglect to pay but before either of these stages is reached there are many hoops to be jumped through and which offer an offender a way forward. Assuming the court had originally made a collection order a distress warrant can be issued. The offender can appeal against the terms set. Attachment of earnings or deductions from benefits order has failed and the reserve terms have also failed. A defaulter also has the opportunity to appear before a means court where detailed enquiries can be made and s/he has an opportunity to explain the position. If all options have been explored then and only then can a custodial sentenced be imposed according to the outstanding amount which varies from 7 days for sums up to £200 to 12 months for amounts over £10,000. However if an argument is accepted that a suspended term would secure payment then the court must suspend. Immediate custody for fine defaulters is therefore a relatively rare event.
Selby in Yorkshire is the home of one Christopher Clayton. He won`t be sitting in his favourite chair to watch T.V. for another week or so according to a report in the Selby Times describing his failure to meet the financial obligation imposed upon him three years ago. Heaven knows what the previous hearings and officials` times and efforts have cost the country. Perhaps we should be proud in this country that it is so difficult to imprison anybody or perhaps that is the very reason for a general long standing disregard of authority widely accepted as a basis for law breaking.