Belfast Telegraph

TV licences: Courts under strain as 4,000 end up in the dock each year

By Adrian Rutherford

Around 15,000 people are caught watching television without a licence every year in Northern Ireland.

Evading the £145.50 fee is a criminal offence, and can mean a fine of up to £1,000.

Each year around 4,000 people come before the courts here for not having a licence.

In 2012/13, licence fee dodgers accounted for one in 12 court appearances.

In a number of cases, people have ended up in jail after not paying fines for licence evasion.

Historically Northern Ireland has had the highest rate of licence dodging in the UK. This dates back to the Troubles when many homes in west Belfast and some rural areas refused to pay.

The issue even emerged in government papers relating to England's infamous poll tax released last month under the 30-year rule.Home Secretary Douglas Hurd said the tax could prove as hard to collect as the TV licence in parts of Northern Ireland.

The strain on the court system caused by TV licence dodgers has prompted Justice Minister David Ford to call for it to be dealt with by civil action rather than criminal prosecution.

A letter from Mr Ford to UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey in January 2012 drew attention to the "ongoing problem" of TV licence fines which go unpaid and suggested changing the nature of licence enforcement.

However, in his reply, Mr Vaizey warned that any changes could lead to even more people in Northern Ireland not paying their TV licence fee. In May 2013, Mr Ford wrote to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers asking for her agreement to decriminalising licence fee non-payment.

"While not condoning in any way this evasion," he wrote, "I would contrast it with the non-payment of other licences, television/media subscriptions and utility-type bills that are properly regarded as civil offences."

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