Do TV licence offences account for one in ten court cases?

22 August 2013

In 1946, the first TV licence was introduced. For a year's viewing of a single black and white channel, the price was £2, or about £71 in today's money. Now, the cost for a colour TV licence is £145.50.

Those who want to watch TV but who don't want to pay for it run the risk of being fined up to £1000. Those fines are enforced by the criminal justice system and, according to a headline in today's Daily Telegraph, TV licence offences now account for "one in ten court cases".

This is an accurate claim, but there's also more to the story.

Non-payment of your TV licence is what's known as a summary offence, which is normally tried in a magistrates' court.

Official statistics tell us that last year 193,000 people were brought to a magistrates' court under 'Wireless Telegraphy Acts'. The Ministry of Justice informed Full Fact the overwhelming majority of cases under these acts relate to not paying TV licences, so we can take this as a reasonably precise figure.

They represent 13% of the 1.4 million people "proceeded against" in this type of court in 2012.

By way of comparison, motoring offences account for just over a third of all cases in the magistrates courts.

Of those appearing in court accused of not paying their TV licence, 85% were found guilty and almost all ordered to pay a fine. Interestingly, women are more than twice as likely to be both prosecuted and convicted. 

But while TV licence prosecutions might account for over a tenth (one in eight really) of magistrates' court cases, that doesn't mean magistrates are spending a tenth of their time dealing with this type of offence. TV Licensing, which collects the licence fee, told the Daily Telegraph:

"TV Licence evasion cases take up a small proportion of court time as they are dealt with in bulk in dedicated sessions and very few people attend court."

It might even be possible to argue that it's easy money for the courts system - it's the court that collects and "disposes of" the fine, not the BBC or TV Licensing.

How many are avoiding court?

What we don't know is how many people who don't pay for their licence manage to avoid prosecution. According to TV Licensing, it will only bring a prosecution if there's enough evidence and it's in the public interest to do so. On its website, the body says that its enquiry officers "catch an average of over 1,000 evaders every day". This would mean that only half of those "caught" are being taken to court. 

However, we can't check this because the data is exempt for disclosure under section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act. This allows an authority to refuse to provide information that might "prejudice" - among other things - "the prevention or detection of crime".

In the House of Lords, a new Private Member's Bill is proposing that non-payment of the licence fee should be a civil, not a criminal offence. But while there might be an argument that offenders are being too harshly treated, it isn't clear that enforcing these fines is a burden on the courts. 


We initially wrote that the Private Member's Bill proposed that non-payment should be a criminal, not a civil offence, when in fact it was the other way around. Thanks to one of our readers for the spot.


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