(RE)think piece

The rich get treatment − the poor go to prison: imprisonment for contempt of court

The rich get treatment − the poor go to prison: imprisonment for contempt of court

Rona Epstein

As an honorary fellow at the Coventry Law School and member of the Is it a crime to be poor? alliance, Rona has shed a light on many glaring cases of the criminalisation of poverty, such as people being sentenced for rough sleeping or begging, or sent to prison for non-payment of Council Tax. Rona’s idea for a Rethink & Reset of the criminal justice system builds on this evidence base, showing the disproportionate and insidious consequences of sentencing laws on those most in need of care. In this piece, she argues that Anti-social Behaviour Laws offer a textbook case example of the systemic reliance on imprisonment where our welfare net has failed, and explains why this must come to an end.

Straight from psychiatric hospital to prison

On 19 October 2021, Milton Keynes County Court ordered Charlotte N to be taken from a psychiatric hospital to serve a prison sentence of 6 months. The judge said: ‘You remain an inpatient on a ward at the hospital in Warrington where several patients have tested COVID-19. I am concerned about your vulnerability and safety.’ The judge described her life in these terms: ‘You were a looked-after child from aged 4 due to your mother’s own mental health difficulties and you were placed in various care homes and foster care placements between aged 4 -14yrs. Whilst in a children’s home you were the subject of sexual assault, including gang rape by older males. As an adult you had a short marriage during which you suffered sexual and domestic abuse. You have a history of overdosing and self-harming behaviours.’

What crime had she committed to deserve to be taken directly from hospital to prison? In fact, she had not committed any crime. She had breached an Anti-Social Behaviour Injunction (ASBI). She had made a noise with a wheelie bin which of course disturbed and annoyed her neighbours, let the property become dilapidated, and directed a flow of abusive language at an employee of the housing trust as he was doing his job by trying to enter her flat. Using foul language, however unpleasant, is not a crime. She had been told by the court to engage with mental health services, but had not done so.

The law, and why it is problematic

Criminal Behaviour Orders were introduced in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to replace the Anti-social Behaviour Order regime, together with a civil injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance (IPNA). Local councils, the police or any social landlord can apply for an IPNA to stop anti-social behaviour. Further, a court may grant an IPNA if it is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that a person has engaged, or threatens to engage, in anti-social behaviour, and it is just and convenient to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing anti-social behaviour.

In March 2015, Part 1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 came into force. It introduced new powers for the police and the courts, including the imposition of a civil injunction, an ASBI − Anti-Social Behaviour Injunction. Breaching an injunction is not a criminal offence but can carry significant penalties imposed in civil proceedings. Cases are heard in the county courts as a civil matter breach of an injunction is not a crime. The court may issue a fine or impose a suspended or immediate term of imprisonment of up to two years, the contemnor usually serves half the sentence.

None of the usual protections available under the criminal law − a pre-sentence report or referral for probation support, for example − are available in these civil court hearings. Representation is difficult to obtain, criminal legal aid is not available, civil legal aid is very difficult to find. Half the defendants are unrepresented.

The sort of behaviour being punished includes:

  1. Neighbour nuisance – people experiencing mental ill health and problematic substance use can be ‘difficult’ neighbours, they may use bad language, make a noise at night, argue loudly.
  2. Behaviour associated with problematic substance use – sleeping rough, urinating in public, begging.

I have recorded cases of sanctions imposed on

236 people, 160 men, 76 women

between 2019 and October 2022.

On 16 February 2021 Leicester County Court committed Mr Batty, who is addicted to drugs, to one year’s immediate imprisonment for two breaches of an injunction against begging. Mr Batty was not in court and was not represented. On 6 December 2021 Swindon County Court imposed seven months immediate imprisonment on Michelle P, who has issues with problematic substance use.The judge stated: ‘The Defendant expressed remorse for her actions and explained the assistance she was seeking to deal with her addictions.

Beyond the sticking plaster approach

Seen through the lens of human rights and social justice, contempt of court law and practice appears to be a prime example of the criminal justice system being misused to punish the poor, the disadvantaged, the most damaged and despised, and the least supported people in our society.

I argue that imprisonment should be restricted to those who have broken the criminal law. Anti-Social Behaviour legislation is unjust and should be repealed. There is of course anti-social behaviour in our, as in other societies, but there should be welfare provisions to deal with and support those individuals who for various reasons are unable to behave in socially acceptable ways.

There is now hope for change as the Law Commission is currently conducting an enquiry into contempt of court sanctions, and will recommend reform of the law. The law regarding anti-social behaviour is basically unjust, cruel and in conflict with human rights. It should be repealed.

There are many unmet social needs in our society; the criminal justice system should not be used as a sticking plaster in a vain attempt to cover the deep and damaging social divide.   

This article is part of a longer piece published by the Is it a Crime to Be Poor? alliance, as part of a research funded by The Oakdale Trust.    

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