THE anti-poverty campaigner the Revd Paul Nicolson has won the
first stage of a High Court battle against a London council after
he refused to pay his council tax in protest at the fines the
authority was imposing.
Mr Nicolson, a retired priest, was given permission to apply for
judicial review by Mr Justice Green at the Royal Courts of Justice
on Tuesday morning. The complex legal case centres on the £125
order for costs given to everyone summoned to a magistrates' court
for not paying council tax in the London borough of Haringey.
Mr Nicolson refused to pay his council tax last year in order to
highlight what, he claims, was an unfair rise in the costs from £95
to £125 in 2010. When he asked the magistrates at his hearing to
explain how the figure of £125 was arrived at, they declined. The
judicial review will be of that decision.
Speaking after the judgment, Mr Nicolson said: "I hoped we would
get judicial review, but he has taken it far further than that:
it's a shot across the bows of every single local authority and
every single magistrates' court. I knew it was a question that had
to be asked, not for myself, but because I knew the damage being
done by housing-benefit cuts, the one-per-cent freeze on benefits,
on council tax being enforced. I know that it is the law that is
Ruling, Mr Justice Green said: "It seems to me the issue is one
of considerable public importance, both for council-taxpayers and
for local authorities. I grant permission for the claimant to apply
for judicial review." In the review of Tottenham Magistrates, the
judge said, Haringey Council should be considered the primary
The relevant law states that only "reasonably incurred" costs
can be imposed. Mr Justice Green said that magistrates should not
merely take a council's word that the costs they asked for were in
"It will not be enough for the authority to simply [state]
certain costs - the court will wish to see that the authority has
not just picked a figure out of the air but has addressed itself to
whether there is a reasonable causal relationship between the cause
and the costs."
Counsel for the magistrates, Josephine Henderson, argued that
the magistrates had in fact heard submissions "in general terms"
about the justification for setting costs at £125, which was a
sufficient level of detail, given that the courts saw up to 20,000
cases of council-tax liability each year. She also said that Mr
Nicolson could pursue his complaint by other means.
Helen Mountfield, acting for Mr Nicolson, said that government
guidance recommended that councils provide a breakdown of the costs
of a summons; and the council had yet to provide a full breakdown
to Mr Nicolson, which it should do for "fairness and transparency".
It was also important to ensure that the council had not hiked the
costs up to £125 as a deterrent, as this would be unlawful, she
The judge agreed, and said that the courts were entitled to
check whether a proper allocation of costs had been undertaken
rather than a figure chosen for political reasons.
As his judgement was read out, a group of Mr Nicolson's
supporters at the back of court cheered quietly, and later
applauded the retired priest out of the court. He said he was
motivated by love, justice, and solidarity for people undergoing
"innocent suffering, which the enforcement of debts against
inadequate incomes is".
"There was carelessness in both the magistrates and the local
authority, they had just not been called to account," he added,
saying he always had faith in the British justice system to get it
"I fear the Church of England, which I love, is both part of the
problem and part of the solution," he said. "It is at one time
caught up in the worst aspects of free market capitalism and at the
other end it is doing wonderful work with the poor. But it can't
look effectively beyond foodbanks and credit unions; what is needed
is a powerful lobby to change the structures and laws and get a
fair system, which we have not got."
"It's the good old saying: 'When I give food to the poor, they
call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a
response of the C of E is to tinker around the edges of this
disaster for the poorest citizens...' - Letter from Mr