Introduction to imprisonment for not paying debts
We receive thousands of call each week by many clients who seem to be worried that they may be go to prison for not paying their debts. Please read this detailed section. If you need further advice on “Imprisonment for debts" contact a Money Advice Direct to speak to an advisor.
Please note that imprisonment for not paying your debts is very rare. It will only be forced upon in cases of contempt of court or serial offending.
There is only a threat of going to prison if you constantly ignore requests to pay by the court.
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 all or part of your debt (called 'remitting') if it feels this is the right thing to do in your case. Your solicitor may be able to give 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 of this are 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, (see 'Harassment of people in debt by creditors').
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Imprisonment and Debts: quick facts
Did you know?
- You can’t be sent to prison for non-payment of debts, such as credit cards, bank loans, and council tax. You can only be sent to prison for non-payment in very limited
cases, for example if you deliberately refuse to pay aliment (money for the support of an individual or children).
- You cannot be sent to prison for non-payment of council tax.. Most councils will try to negotiate a settlement. Theywould rather not take people to court. Even if you are taken to court, there is still an opportunity to try to pay your debt, at a rate you can afford
- You cannot go to prison if you go bankrupt. You cannot be sent to prison as part of the process if you go bankrupt.There is a type of bankruptcy called “criminal bankruptcy but this is very rare. If you go bankrupt as a direct result of reckless activities such as hazardous overspending and gambling. In these cases you may be subject to certain restrictions called a “bankruptcy restriction order”. If the order is broken it is a criminal offence and you may receive a custodial sentence.
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Imprisonment and Debts: Common questions
I have £40.000 in debt and I am thinking about leaving the country to live in Marbella in Spain. I just can’t pay my debts back. Can I go to prison for this??
A great number of UK citizens fear imprisonment for non payment of debts and some debt collectors play on this fear. In the UK it is very rare to go to jail for non payment of debts. In some other parts of the world debts can land you in jail immediately pending payment until you pay up.
Should I just leave the country or make a small offer to my creditors as I really don’t want to go to prison?
The best advice we can give is if you can show willing such offering a pound a month If you do genuinely have difficulties especially with council tax or other similar debts, then other steps can be made by the magistrates or county court in your favour such as a partial or complete write-off of the outstanding debts.
Can I be sent to prison for not repaying my utility debts?
This is a very popular question and you will be pleased to know that for non priority debts you cannot be sent to prison.
Can I be sent to prison for not repaying my mortgage or secured loan debts?
There is only danger of imprisonment for debts if you have been fraudulent in obtaining the credit.
Can I be sent to prison for not paying my gas, electricity or water bills?
No you cannot. The worst the utility companies can do is disconnect the supply.
Which court would I have to go with regards to debt and imprisonment?
You will be seen in the Magistrates Court. The magistrate does not have the authority to send you to prison for not paying your child support, council tax or business rates. The main purpose of the hearing will be to see why you are not paying. They will ask you about your reasons for not paying. If you just refuse to pay or are just negligent they will ask for details of your income usually force to pay via an attachment of earnings order. If you refuse to pay or misbehave in court you can be sent to Prison.
What is a Warrant with Bail for failing to pay debts?
There is an order called "Warrant with Bail”. A warrant with Bail is a n arrest warrant is a legal document issued by a magistrate giving the police the right to arrest someone. If the person is to be allowed to go home on bail after they have been arrested, it is called a 'warrant with bail'. If the warrant is granted with bail, the Police will arrest the person but will then bail him/her to appear in court on the date specified. If the persson fails to attend that hearing then a warrant may then be granted without bail.
What is a Warrant without Bail for failing to pay debts?
If the above warrant with bail is ignored, then the next step towards imprisonment for debts is a “Warrant without Bail” If the warrant is granted without bail the Police will arrest the person and hold him/her in custody until he/she can be taken to the next available court hearing. A warrant without bail is usually only granted if there is good reason to keep the non-resident parent in prison - for example, there is evidence that the person may leave the country, or persistent refusal to attend after the issue of a warrant with bail.
Will hiring a solicitor to represent me to lower my chances of going to prison for non payment of my debts?
No imprisonment can be made if you have had no legal representative made available to you.
You have the right to have a solicitor free of charge to represent you. A solicitor may be able to speak to the court and point out things that you may not have considered.
Usually cases of people who have genuine, and severe difficulties in payment of debts will escape prison, but will still have to pay whatever they cab going forward under the direction of the magistrates or county court order.
If I fail to pay standard correctly issued credit card debts, loans, utility bills, store cards and other credit debts that were applied for and obtained legally can I go to prison?
If ths happens you will be pleased to know that it is a civil matter and you cannot go to prisonfor these debts even if you wilfully refuse to pay them.
There must be some instances where you can end up in jail for non payment of money?
You can in end up in jail if you wilfully or deliberately disobey certain court orders. In particular if a Bailiff has been unsuccessful in seizing goods, and creditors use other means to enforce collection such as an attachment of earnings order... and you willfully and persistently refuse to co-operate with the county courts in these matters you can be arrested and sent to prison for up to 14 days.
The prison sentence will not be for non-payment of the debt, but will be for the offence of failing to follow the court's orders in regard to the debts.