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Jail is an excessive penalty for non payment of TV licence fines

The case of a west Belfast grandmother jailed for non-payment of fines for not having a television licence has placed a spotlight on what is a disturbing and often overlooked aspect of our legal system.

The fact that someone can be sent to prison for not having a TV licence will strike many people as an excessive penalty for something that is a relatively minor offence.

Given that people convicted of serious crimes often escape with a suspended sentence, it seems deeply unfair that someone who fails to buy a television licence can find themselves behind bars.

However, this is precisely what happened to Anne Smith, a 59-year-old with a number of health problems who is currently awaiting double hip replacement surgery.

The mother-of-four, who has 12 grandchildren, told The Irish News earlier this week how she was terrified at the prospect of being imprisoned.

Her family said efforts had been made to pay her fine of just over £1,100, but because a bench warrant had been issued she had to present herself for detention at Hydebank which she did on Wednesday.

Ms Smith was told she could be detained at least until next Wednesday but thankfully, she was freed yesterday evening following the intervention of a benefactor who paid the remainder of her fine.

But there remains the wider issue of imprisoning people for non-payment of fines in relation to the TV licence, particularly in circumstances where the person being detained is in poor health.

It has to be acknowledged that there is a lengthy legal process that has to be followed in such cases with opportunities provided to pay the money owed and it is not entirely clear how Ms Smith's situation escalated to the point where she ended up in jail.

Nevertheless, it must be asked if it is appropriate in this day and age for someone to be jailed for failing to pay for a TV licence.

It is a sanction that is used fairly regularly in Northern Ireland with 60 people imprisoned last year and 61 in 2016.

Spending a period of time in jail clears the fine but given the cost of holding someone in custody, it is questionable if this the best use of public money.

We are told there is new legislation which will allow for fines to be recovered from benefits and other means which is a much more compassionate and common sense approach - and clearly long overdue.

Hopefully we will soon see an end to the courts sending people to jail for failing to pay fines imposed for TV licence evasion.




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