R (oao Woolcock) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Secretary of State for Justice and the Welsh Ministers
The court has handed down judgment in the case of R (oao Woolcock) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Secretary of State for Justice and the Welsh Ministers. Blake Morgan represented the Welsh Ministers in this judicial review challenge to the validity of the council tax enforcement system operated in England and Wales.
The challenge was brought by Melanie Woolcock, an individual living in Wales who fell behind with her council tax payments. Bridgend County Borough Council obtained liability orders in respect of the amount owed and Ms Woolcock was arrested and sentenced by Bridgend Magistrates Court to 84 days imprisonment, suspended upon weekly payments towards the arrears. In May 2016, Ms Woolcock fell behind on the payments towards the arrears, and the matter was brought back before Bridgend Magistrates court who, in Ms Woolcock's absence, committed her to serve an 81 day prison sentence (the period of imprisonment having been reduced to take account of payments that she had made). Ms Woolcock was arrested in August 2016 and spent 40 days in prison before issuing her claim.
Ms Woolcock's claim fell into two parts:
(i) A claim that the magistrates had made a number of errors of law and procedure in the Claimant’s case, rendering her imprisonment unlawful; and
(ii) A claim that the statutory scheme under which council tax was enforced was unlawful by reason of systemic failures causing an unacceptable risk of unfairness
In January 2017, the Administrative Court in Cardiff decided that the Magistrates had made errors when committing Ms Woolcock to prison and allowed first part of the claim. This left the allegations of systemic unfairness in the system to be dealt with, and this was this element of the claim that involved the Welsh Ministers as a Defendant, as the body responsible for the Regulations in Wales that governs the council tax enforcement system.
The Claimant argued that the number of cases her solicitors had found that involved errors being made by magistrates demonstrated that the system was flawed. In defence, the Welsh Ministers noted that no powers have been devolved to the Welsh Ministers in respect of the operation of magistrates courts. The Welsh Ministers and the other Defendants also relied on the arguments that the Claimant had not demonstrated any inherent unfairness in the system that they were responsible for remedying.
This case was one of several cases issued by the Claimant's solicitors. The systemic challenge elements of the other cases had been stayed pending the outcome of Ms Woolcock's claim.
In the recent judgment, Lord Justice Hickenbottom ruled that he was "entirely unpersuaded" that there was any basis for a systemic challenge by way of judicial review. He noted that the Claimant had accepted that the council tax enforcement scheme was fair and lawful, so long as it was operated in accordance with the case law. Therefore, any risk of unfairness did not arise out of the systemic procedures; the risk was simply that the magistrates failed to comply with the requirements of the scheme. The judgment makes it clear that no case was made out against the Defendants in this case that they were responsible for any flaw in the system that gave rise to any such risk. Mr Justice Lewis, who also heard the case, agreed with the judgment of Lord Justice Hickenbottom.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not represent the views or opinions of the Welsh Ministers or any other third parties.