Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 28 May 2016

Fury at BBC NI as 10,000 licence dodge cases 'clog up legal system'

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 08/03/2016

The BBC has vowed to keep prosecuting TV licence fee dodgers 'on behalf of the fee-paying public'
The BBC has vowed to keep prosecuting TV licence fee dodgers 'on behalf of the fee-paying public'

People caught dodging the TV licence accounted for a quarter of all criminal prosecutions in Northern Ireland last year, it can be revealed.

The BBC was responsible for one in every four cases which reached magistrates courts.

The number of people taken to court for not paying their £145.50 licence topped 10,000 in 2014/15 - almost 30 a day on average.

Less than half were subsequently found guilty.

With magistrates handling a total of 43,000 cases, it meant licence fee dodgers made up around 25% of their workload.

It comes at a time when our courts are facing huge delays in getting cases to trial.

The rate of TV licence cases is also much higher compared to England and Wales, where the figure in the same year was around one in 10.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the figures were "extraordinary".

"We are clogging up the court system for what is basically a civil action," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Valuable court time is being wasted on what, in normal circumstances, any other public utility would have to pursue in the civil courts."

Justice Minister David Ford wants to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, but has been repeatedly thwarted.

Mr Wilson accused the BBC of acting "selfishly" by opposing its decriminalisation.

Anyone watching television as it is being broadcast must have a TV licence.

However, it is possible to watch online catch-up services - such as the BBC iPlayer and UTV Player - without the need for a licence.

A licence currently costs £145.50 a year. The maximum penalty for non-payment is a £1,000 fine.

Details of prosecutions for licence fee evasion were released by the Northern Ireland Courts Service after a Freedom of Information request.

In the three years to April 2015, a total of 142,466 cases were received in magistrates courts.

Just over one in five - 26,058 defendants - were charged with having no TV licence.

In 2014/15 the figures were even more eye-catching, with 10,154 of the 43,310 defendants - one in four - in court because they didn't have a licence.

Over the three-year period, fewer than half of the defendants prosecuted for no licence - 11,705 of the 26,058 - were found guilty.

Mr Wilson said the high number of prosecutions illustrated the depth of opposition to the TV licence.

"It highlights three things, first of all the waste of court service time and the impact that has on justice for many people who really deserve justice on much more serious matters," he said.

"Secondly, it highlights the degree of opposition that there is to making these payments.

"And thirdly, it highlights the selfishness of the BBC in insisting that this remains a criminal offence when, for all other public utilities, non-payment becomes a civil offence." Last year it was reported that Justice Secretary Michael Gove had called for non-payment of the licence fee to be decriminalised.

Mr Gove was said to have had concerns about the pressure it is putting on the courts system.

Last year around 3,500 people a week faced prosecution in England and Wales for failing to pay their licence fee - one in 10 of all cases to come before magistrates.

Mr Ford has also called for TV licence evasion to be made a civil matter.

"My view is that the non-payment of a TV licence should be decriminalised," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"However, as penalties for non-payment is not a devolved matter it is not within my remit to change the law in Northern Ireland.

"I have pressed the UK Government to make non-payment of the license fee a civil matter, rather than a criminal offence, but as yet they have not accepted the argument."

A spokesperson for TV Licensing said prosecutions were taken where it was in the public interest.

"TV Licence evasion cases are dealt with in bulk in dedicated sessions which means they can be dealt with more quickly than other categories of cases," she said.

"The decision on whether to prosecute is made on a case-by-case basis working to Public Prosecution Service guidelines. A prosecution doesn't proceed unless evidential and public interest tests are satisfied.

"The majority of first-time offenders are not prosecuted if they buy a licence before their case is heard in court.

"On behalf of the vast majority who pay, we will prosecute people who deliberately evade the fee."

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