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1 Dealing with Debt
13. 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 not very likely, since 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:
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:
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.
This leaflet is published by the Legal Services Commission (LSC). It was written in association with Birmingham Settlement.
The leaflets are regularly updated but the law may have changed since they were printed so the information in them may be incorrect or out of date.
Leaflet Version: April 2019
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