Janet Ellison is quietly crying as she addresses the courtroom. In front of her, two male magistrates wearing suits sit at a wooden bench below a plaque of the royal coat of arms.
The 53-year-old, who walks with a crutch and is unable to stand for the hearing, looks terrified. Little wonder — this would be an intimidating environment for anyone.
And what is her crime? Watching the news four months after her TV licence had expired.
TV Licensing, the body responsible for collecting the £159 BBC licence fee, prosecuted 49,144 people last year – 92 % of whom were convicted.
The clerk begins the proceedings by reading out the charge.
‘On or about January 6, 2022, you used a television receiver without a licence. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?’
‘Guilty,’ trembles Janet. Prosecutor Philip Carvill then describes how she was caught watching the news by an officer who knocked on her door.
Trying desperately to defend herself, Janet explains that she had been paying for her TV licence by direct debit.
‘There were some missed payments but the bank didn’t inform me of this. TV Licensing says they sent me letters, but I missed both of them.’
Her voice breaks and she pulls a tissue from her pink jacket.
‘It’s not that I don’t want to pay, I have been paying it all along,’ she says as she wipes her cheeks under her face mask.
This is just one of more than a dozen TV licence cases listed for the day at Stratford magistrates’ court in East London. TV Licensing, the body responsible for collecting the £159 BBC licence fee, prosecuted 49,144 people last year — 92 per cent of whom were convicted.
After a brief pause during the pandemic, its enforcement officers are back, knocking on doors between 8am and 9pm.
In January, Leigh Tavaziva, the BBC’s chief operating officer, told MPs in the Public Accounts Committee that she expected prosecutions to ‘double’ to pre-pandemic levels.
Officers visited 671,500 homes in 2020/21 — of which 62,077 were found to be watching television without a licence. During the same period, TV Licensing received 20,904 complaints about customer service, an 88 pc rise on the 11,100 recorded the previous year.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has branded the system ‘completely outdated’, and hinted it could be axed when the Government’s agreement with broadcaster comes up for renewal in 2027.
In February 2020, the Government launched a consultation to consider decriminalising the offence of watching TV without a licence, then later shelved the idea. But details of a review to consider alternative ways of funding the BBC are now expected to be released within weeks.
TV Licensing officers visited 671,500 homes in 2020/21 – of which 62,077 people were found to be watching television without a licence
A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesman told Money Mail: ‘It is disproportionate and unfair that people are being hit with criminal sanctions for not paying the licence fee.’
Most of the people who appeared in Court Six in Stratford last Wednesday ended up pleading guilty to not paying the TV Licence charge. It was explained clearly to them by the prosecutor at the start that if they did not, they could face a much bigger fine if they later lost their case.
This is almost certainly what prompted Janet to change her plea to guilty on the day. At the end of her ten-minute hearing, she is granted a six-month conditional discharge because ‘it was a genuine mistake’, the chair of the magistrates’ bench, Mr Giles, tells her.
This means she won’t receive a fine — which can be as high as £1,000 — as long as she doesn’t commit another offence within six months. However, Janet, who is unemployed, will still have to pay £120 in court costs and a £22 victim surcharge, which all guilty parties pay to help fund victim services.
She opts to pay the charge in £40 monthly instalments.
‘Getting a visit from an officer like that was just something I never expected,’ Janet tells me later, before she heads home for a much-needed cup of tea.
Nurse Jennifer Austin, 38, is also given a conditional discharge, while her niece looks after her two babies outside the courtroom. The mother of three had sent an £80 cheque to TV Licensing, but it had already cancelled her licence because of non-payment, and officers turned up at her home in March.
‘It was a very stressful time for me. I was pregnant with twins and they were only a couple of months old when the officer knocked on the door,’ she says.
‘It is so horrible being dragged to court over something like this, I have never been in trouble with the police.’
How officers track people down
TV Licensing uses a national database, vans which pick up TV receiver signals and its own enforcement officers to hunt evaders.
It sends letters to people it believes should have a licence but aren’t paying to explain how to buy one. Officers will visit those who don’t respond to see if they’re watching TV, check if they have a licence and conduct interviews.
If you are a first-time offender, you should be able to avoid prosecution by buying a licence from an officer or setting up a payment plan.
However, if you refuse to do so, you may receive a ‘single justice procedure’ in the post.
This document confirms you have been charged — and will ask you to plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.
You can also provide details of your individual circumstances, as the magistrate will take your income into consideration when they set the fine.
If you plead guilty, you do not have to attend the hearing but could be asked to pay a fine as well as court costs.
Those who plead not guilty are required to go to court and face having to pay a higher fine of up to £1,000 and legal costs.
Some hearings do not go as smoothly. Mario Gomes, 26, arrives to make a statutory declaration. Defendants often do this if they have been convicted in their absence without their knowledge.
But he is Portuguese and his English is not good enough for him to continue without a translator, so the hearing is adjourned.
Another defendant, Veselen Madzhirov, 36, tells the court via a Bulgarian interpreter that his wife recently left with their children — and the licence was in her name. He is given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay the same costs as Janet and Jennifer.
It is no surprise some defendants find the TV Licensing laws confusing. Many would assume that live television is limited to programmes such as sport and the news.
However, you also need a licence to watch programmes streamed live on online TV services such as Amazon Prime or YouTube. And you can even be fined if you record shows to watch later.
At one point in court, the clerk suggests that anyone who has a device capable of live broadcast must have a licence. But if it is not used to watch or record live TV, it does not need one.
Of the 14 cases listed today, just half of the defendants turn up. Mr Carvill says around five in 30 usually attend.
This may be because they have entered a guilty plea, live too far away, or cannot afford to take time off work. However, they are likely to be found guilty in their absence.
One 31-year-old woman is based 160 miles away in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, but was summoned to Stratford to apply to re-open her case.
She has written an email to the court in which she claims to have a valid licence, but doesn’t explain she will not be attending.
Because of this, Mr Giles declines to re-open the case, telling the court: ‘She could have emailed to say she couldn’t make it, she has made no effort.’
You cannot be sent to prison for not having a TV licence, but you can be given a jail term if you repeatedly refuse to pay the fine — which was £197, on average, in 2020
Only one defendant, Liza Petr D’Silva, 53, maintains her ‘not guilty’ plea. She claims she only watches shows on services such as Netlix and Amazon Prime, rather than live programmes which require a licence.
But if she is found guilty at her trial at the magistrates court next month, she risks a significantly higher fine. Her daughter, Janet, 31, tells me: ‘These officers shouldn’t be allowed to harass people like my mother.’
You cannot be sent to prison for not having a TV Licence, but you can be given a jail term if you repeatedly refuse to pay the fine — which was £197, on average, in 2020.
TV Licence convictions do not show up in basic criminal record checks, but they could in a stricter check, which may be required if you work in childcare, for example.
Defendants who maintain a ‘not guilty’ plea will have to contest their case in a trial. This can be held on the same day as the first hearing in the same magistrates’ court, if there is time.
However, if the defendant disputes evidence given by enforcement officers, they will have to be called in to give evidence — and a trial will be scheduled for a different date.
Offenders handed the maximum £1,000 fine would also have to pay a £100 victim surcharge and legal costs, which could run into hundreds or even thousands of pounds if the defendant instructs its own legal team, according to experts.
In Scotland, hearings are held before a Sheriff or Justice of the Peace Court, rather than in front of magistrates.
Over-75s previously didn’t have to pay for a TV Licence, but since August 2020, only over-75s who claim Pension Credit are able to watch live TV for free.
A grace period for elderly viewers ended last July. But TV Licensing says no over-75s who previously had free licences have faced enforcement or prosecution as of yet.
It adds that it has written to people in this age group who do not have a licence with instructions for how to set one up and where they can find extra help if they need it.
However, Dennis Reed, of campaign group Silver Voices, says some of his members claim they have received threatening letters which suggest an officer will visit their homes.
He adds: ‘This is essentially a bullying campaign, targeting vulnerable people who may already be struggling with their finances.’
Tara Casey, of legal charity Appeal, says: ‘TV Licensing prosecutions are the perfect example of the criminalisation of poverty. This has got to be wrong, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis.’
Joe Ventre, of campaign group TaxPayers’ Alliance, agrees and adds: ‘Ministers must act now to axe the TV tax and spare many from the pain of pointless prosecutions.’
A TV Licensing spokesman says: ‘Prosecution is only ever a last resort and the majority of first- time offenders are not prosecuted if they buy a licence before their court date.
‘We work with groups throughout the UK which support people who fall into financial difficulty and we have payment plans available to help people spread the cost and make regular payments.’
Why we must decriminalise TV licence fee
By IAN SUTHERLAND – Retired magistrate
During my 20 years on the Huddersfield magistrates’ bench in West Yorkshire, many different crimes were brought before us.
Call for change: Retired magistrate Ian Sutherland
But not all offences are deliberate. Some are unfortunate and committed inadvertently.
The majority of TV licence offenders were confused, bewildered and in some cases, elderly or disabled. Most of them had never been before a court before, generally leading blameless lives.
We would be handed means test forms for defendants, which detailed their incomes. For many, it was already a balancing act to keep their families going.
But now a court order was going to slice their meagre incomes even thinner. I always found these cases particularly harsh. For some, the television is their only form of entertainment.
Yes, they can defend themselves in court. However, this is becoming more difficult as local courthouses continue to be axed across the country.
Not everyone can attend if their cases are assigned to courts miles away from where they live. But I fear these cases will only increase in the months and years to come.
Over-75s are now fair game and could face prosecution for not having a licence.
On top of this, the cost-of-living crisis will add to the backlog of cases — as families who are already struggling are pushed to their limits.
The solution? Decriminalise the TV licence fee. It will go some way to help households during these tough times.