Throughout the mid 19th Century, so called ‘debtors’ prisons’ were used throughout Western Europe as a way of punishing and penalising people for failing to repay their debts.
Often in a similar guise to workhouses, these institutions were feared and any association with spending time there was usually enough to write someone off from any chance of bouncing back.
Fortunately, we’ve moved on a bit from those days, and no such places exist, but can you still go to prison over debt?
Well, it’s very unlikely to happen, but yes you can.
In the eyes of the law there are two reasons why a magistrate can give a prison sentence for unpaid debt.
Wilful refusal, which is where a debtor decides to not pay the debt even though they can, is the first reason. A debtor may feel that the debt is unfair, but if the ruling goes against them, they could find themselves locked up.
Culpable neglect is the second reason which could land a debtor inside. This is where the debt could have been paid, but the debtor decided to spend their money on something else.
Now, whilst these two reasons may resonate and sound likely to be fairly common, as indeed they are, this doesn’t mean that many people end up going to prison.
At the end of the day, the outcome that everyone is looking for is that the debt gets paid. Prison is always the very last resort.
Credit card debts, bank loan debts, pay day loan debts, B2B debts and other similar debts that are handled in a County Court as opposed to the Magistrates’ Court, will only ever carry prison as a potential consequence if the CCJ is followed up with an Order to Attend Court for Questioning.
It is the non-payment of debts from cases heard in a Magistrates’ Court that could result in prison time.
Council tax arrears, business rates debts and child support arrears are some of the potential reasons, but don’t forget that up to 30 people a year still go to prison for failing to pay their TV licence fees.
Sounds ridiculous but it’s true!
Ultimately, if you settle the debt, there is nothing to worry about.
It is important to know that help is available, and this is why we advertise helplines and support so prominently on our website.
Get advice from a debt adviser, call the helplines and attend court whenever you are told to.
There are viable options for resolving the debt, such as arranging realistic and more affordable payment plans.
The worst thing you can do is bury your head and avoid correspondence. This is something that a person might do without receiving advice, and in almost all cases where people go to prison over debt, they haven’t sought advice.
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