“I am not a criminal. I’ve been forgetful and stupid, but I’ve not hurt anyone or done anything purposefully wrong.”
Each year, more than 100,000 people – three-quarters of them women – get hauled before magistrates for not paying their TV licence fee. Earlier this month, Sara Smith was one of them.
“I felt nervous and embarrassed,” the 26-year-old told HuffPost UK. “I had never been to court before and suddenly I was around criminals.”
A public consultation is under way to help the government decide whether not paying the TV licence fee should remain a criminal offence.
As things stand, people like Sara who haven’t paid up are summoned to court once a month.
Alongside her at Blackburn Magistrates’ Court when HuffPost UK visited were people facing financial difficulties and health issues, some who didn’t speak English as a first language, and others just down on their luck.
In the end, Sara was fined £40 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £60 and a £30 victim surcharge – a total of £130, which she’ll pay in instalments of £10 a week.
A mother of three who briefly fell behind on the licence fee while caring for her father, Sara didn’t know she’d done anything wrong until bailiffs turned up at her front door. She later developed pneumonia and ended up missing her first court appearance.
“I genuinely just assumed we had a TV licence,” she told magistrates. “I do have a TV licence now. I just fell behind on two payments while I was looking after my dad and had switched the TV licence to my partner’s name at the same address.”
The next day, as her young children watched cartoons, Sara told HuffPost UK how her father had been dying of cancer at the time she missed the payments, and she was spending her days by his side while her partner worked night shifts and took care of their children during the day.
“We were literally crossing paths and I was coming home late at night and not checking the mail,” she said.
Her partner, a forklift driver, had to take the day off without pay so she could go to court, so the family lost more financially than the £130 bill Sara was handed by the bench.
“My dad was in a really bad way but had outlived the prognosis given to him by specialists,” said Sara.
“I would be at the hospice all day, but then when I’d get home, they would ring and say ‘this is it’. I’d rush back, but then he’d pull through again.”
As her young children watched television in the living room, Sara told HuffPost UK her four-year-old daughter had recently been diagnosed with autism. “She is fascinated with the TV,” she said. “Part of her autism is that she likes watching the same things over and over again.”
The bailiffs, arriving at 7am one day in November, had threatened to get locksmiths to let them into her house, and said she now owed £800 for the privilege. What they didn’t bother telling her was who she actually owed the debt to, something she had to ring them up to find out.
“I was then supposed to go to court in December.” she said. “But two days before, I started having chest pains and had to go to hospital. They found blood clots on my lung and a shadow which was pneumonia. Then the next court date I was given for January was the same day as a CT scan appointment.”
In 2018, 72% of all prosecutions for licence fee non-payment were against women. It accounts for 30 per cent of all prosecutions against women, more than any other offence.
Campaigners say women are more likely to be living in poverty or affected by austerity and also the ones most likely to be present when TV licensing officers visit the property.
From April 2020, the annual cost of the TV licence fee will be £157.50. And from June, only over-75s claiming pension credit will be eligible for a free TV licence.
For those who don’t have a bank account or don’t want to set up a direct debit, they can use a TV Licensing payment card. This allows them to spread the cost with weekly payments costing £5.60 a week. Using this method, people pay for their first licence in 26 payments, one each week. Once they’ve paid all 26 payments, they will pay fortnightly instead.
Former culture secretary Nicky Morgan launched a public consultation to look at whether non-payment of the TV licence should remain a criminal offence.
Currently, anyone who watches or records live TV or uses iPlayer without a TV licence is guilty of an offence.
While you cannot be jailed directly for not paying the licence fee, if they later fail to pay a fine they could end up behind bars.
In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for evasion, and issued with an average fine of £176.
Launching the consultation, Morgan said many people felt it was wrong that “you can be imprisoned for not paying the TV licence” and that its enforcement punished the vulnerable.
She said: “We are launching a public consultation to make sure we have a fair and proportionate approach to licence fee penalties and payments that protects those most in need in society.”
Missing three TV licence payments left Mandy Griffiths facing a four-figure bill.
“It cost me £6 every week or so for the TV licence,” she told HuffPost UK. “But sometimes, I just didn’t have the £6 to pay as I needed it for food, gas or electric.”
Mandy, a single mother of two, says access to TV is important for people facing financial hardship, particularly if they have children. “I still needed the TV for the kids.” she said. “When you can’t afford to go out and do things, they need something to do.
“I went from missing around three TV licence payments to being fined around £100 and court fees on top. It ended up going up to around £1,000 and it had to come out of my benefits money. At one point, I was paying £150 of my benefits a month to different people I owed. So now I try not to get behind on my TV licence.”
Financial struggles were a recurrent theme in the TV licences cases witnessed by HuffPost UK at Blackburn Magistrates’ Court.
One 32-year-old man had been listed for a hearing but told magistrates he had accidentally ticked the “not guilty” box and wanted to change his plea to guilty. He admitted using a colour television at his address without a licence when TV Licensing officers visited. He cited financial difficulties and handed over paperwork as proof.
After giving him full credit for his guilty plea, magistrates fined him a total of £184 and told him the minimum repayment he could make was £5 a week.
A 45-year-old man who stood in the court coughing told magistrates he had some health issues and pleaded guilty to using a colour television without a licence. He was fined a total of £137 and, after telling magistrates he wouldn’t be paid until the end of the month, was given 28 days to make his first payment of £5.
A 41-year-old woman wearing a purple headscarf attended court with an interpreter who translated everything into Urdu. It transpired she had originally been fined £220 in her absence two years ago, with a victim surcharge of £30 and costs of £205.
Through her interpreter, she told the court a mistake had been made and wanted to know if the fine could be reduced. At the time the TV licensing officer called, she thought her husband was already paying for a licence. When she found out this wasn’t the case, she couldn’t make a payment as the couple were experiencing financial difficulties.
One woman was fined a total of £455 in her absence while another, described as unemployed, was fined £295.
Another woman, who the court heard was suffering from anxiety and on a low income, was fined a total of £290 in her absence.
Still another had telephoned to say she wasn’t going to attend as she had suffered a head injury and gone to hospital.
Meanwhile, the mother of a man who was due to be tried for not paying the licence fee had written to the court to say her son hadn’t lived at the address in question for two months. She said suffered from mental health problems and autism and had gone missing before being sectioned. The mother explained she had called TV Licensing but three fines had still come out of the man’s benefits.
Roni Marsh is the debt team leader for South West London law centres, which defend the rights of people who cannot afford a lawyer.
She told HuffPost UK that many of the people prosecuted by TV Licensing are “vulnerable, have health issues, have English as a second language or are people with low literacy”.
“One of the saddest things is that the people we come across do not realise the consequences or realise what has happened until money starts coming out of their benefits,” she said.
“When they are in financial hardship, many people avoid opening their post. Some of them don’t understand the implications. I had one woman recently who told me she’d signed some paperwork to make TV Licensing officers go away – but she had no idea what she’d signed.”
Marsh says not having a TV cuts people off from a major part of life. “When people have got very little money,” she explained, “they spend it on essentials such as food and heating.
“I’ve seen people who are not paying their TV licences and taking the risk as they can’t afford it. But they still want access to a TV, especially when they have kids as it keeps them occupied. If someone said they didn’t have a TV, that would be viewed as unusual.”
Marsh said having deductions made from benefits was pushing vulnerable people into food banks.
She added: “Being summoned to a magistrates’ court is frightening for anyone, but it must be terrifying for people with anxiety and mental health issues, and those already facing financial hardship.”
John Bache, national chair of the Magistrates Association, told HuffPost UK his organisation welcomed the public consultation.
He said: “It is concerning that, in 2018, 72 per cent of non-payment cases involved a female defendant.
“We would call for more research to better understand and address this disproportionality.
“It is important to note that an individual will not be sent to prison for licence evasion itself, but only for wilful non-payment of the ensuing fine, and prison is treated by sentencers as a last resort.”
A TV Licensing spokesperson told HuffPost UK they were committed to operating fairly and prosecution was always an “absolute last resort”.
He said: “When someone doesn’t pay for their TV licence, they are given multiple opportunities to then do so. This includes them being sent multiple letters and the majority of first-time suspected offenders are not prosecuted if they buy a licence before their court hearing.”
He added a detailed government-commissioned review had already found the current system was “the fairest and most effective”. However, he said: “We do appreciate that some people struggle to pay for their TV licence and so we do everything we can to help.
“We offer a range of different payment options and we work with money advice and community organisations across the UK so they can advise those on low incomes.”
The consultation, launched on February 5, will last eight weeks with the government publishing its response this summer. It will also look at the viability of an alternative enforcement scheme.
Decriminalisation would mean TV licence evasion would become a civil offence similar to non-payment of council tax or an electricity bill, rather than a criminal offence.
But for people like Sara, it comes too late.
“I feel so relieved the court appearance is over – I felt so sick and embarrassed,” she said. “I am so nervous I am going to forget the weekly payments that I’m just going to pay the fine off in full as soon as we can.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.