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Can I be sent to prison for not repaying debts?

Being threatened by jail is a tactic that some unscrupulous debt collectors may try to persuade you to make a payment. The chances are this is a scare-tactic, but there are exceptions you should be aware of.

You cannot be sent to prison if you do not pay your non-priority debts.

However, if you owe money on secured debts such as mortgages, and unsecured debts such as credit cards, bank loans, or mail order accounts you will only be in danger of going to prison if there has been fraudulent actions connected with the debt.

You cannot be sent to prison for arrears of gas or electricity, although other means of action, such as disconnection of the supply may be taken.

A Magistrates Court does have the power to send you to prison for not repaying fines, maintenance, community charges, business rates, or council tax, although every chance will be given to sort out the problem. In the case of council tax and community charge the magistrate must conduct a means enquiry and establish that the non-payment is a result of either wilful refusal or culpable neglect. Prison is really only used as a last resort for repeat offenders.

If you are requested to attend the magistrates Court because of a council tax or fine arrear a “Warrant with Bail” can be issued if you fail attend. This means that the Magistrates can issue a warrant for your arrest. Usually this warrant requires you to surrender yourself to the local police station, where you will be given a time and a date in which you must attend a court hearing.

If the above warrant is ignored, occasionally a “Warrant without Bail” can be issued. The Police are then requested by the Magistrate to arrest you and retain you in custody, until a court hearing can be arranged. The hearing usually happens within 24 hours. These warrants are often not acted upon for weeks and even months due to the low priority of the cases, compared to other matters that the police are dealing with.

Imprisonment for non-payment of debts really is a last resort. Most courts will only imprison people that have already been given a number of opportunities to repay the outstanding amounts, usually by affordable re-scheduled instalments. No imprisonment can be made if you have had no legal representative made available. It is a good idea to visit your local free advice agency.

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