Can a debtor go to prison for not paying a debt?

No - but yes!

Once Judgment has been obtained against a debtor, one way to find out a debtor’s financial circumstances is to make an application to the Court for an Order for a debtor to attend Court for questioning.  

A hearing is set down by the Court telling the debtor the date and time he must attend Court to answer questions on oath such as whether:

  • he owns any property
  • he has any assets e.g. stocks and shares
  • he owns a vehicle
  • he is working, details of his employer and how much he is earning
  • he is the beneficiary of a will
  • he has any other debts

The debtor will also be required to bring any documents in relation to his finances  such as copy bank statements, wage slips etc. to the hearing.

Who can serve the debtor?

Notice of the hearing must be personally served on the debtor i.e. handed to the debtor.  This can be done by you, the Bailiff or a process server.  This is because the Notice advises the debtor that if he fails to obey the Order, i.e. he fails to attend the hearing or refuses to answer the questions put to them, they can be held in contempt of Court.   The power of this document can often prompt the debtor to pay up.

Will I have to attend the hearing?

You can do but either an Officer of the Court or a Judge will ask the questions on your behalf.  There is a standard form the debtor can complete but you can put forward

additional questions to be asked.

What happens if the debtor is in contempt of court?

If the debtor disobeys the Order, the Court can issue a Suspended Committal Warrant which must also be personally served on the debtor.  The Suspended Committal Order gives the debtor another date when they must attend a further hearing.  If the debtor fails to attend this hearing, a Warrant of Committal can be issued. 

The Warrant will entitle the Bailiff to arrest the debtor and bring them before the Court.  If the debtor still fails to answer the questions, the Court can issue an Order (Warrant of Committal) whereby the debtor will be taken to prison for a specified amount of time. 

The threat of being committed to prison is a powerful incentive for an otherwise evasive debtor to co-operate or to try and settle the debt.

 

Case study – a warning

Whilst is it unusual for a debtor to be committed to prison, I pursued a debtor who refused to answer the questions put to them.  The debtor was committed to prison for 7 days.  Upon their release, they were brought before the Judge.  Once again, the debtor refused to answer the questions put to them.  The debtor was therefore committed to prison for a further 14 days.  This was an extreme case (and costly) and the debtor never did answer the questions put to them.  However, the client gained some satisfaction that the debtor had not simply got away with disobeying the Court Order.  


Robert has a broad commercial practice and has handled thousands of disputes relating to many commercial activities and industry sectors. He has acted in claims ranging from a few thousand pounds to several million, including cases where the commercial implications of the dispute carry a greater value than the dispute itself.

Applying negotiation, mediation and litigation as appropriate, Robert is well-known for his tenacious yet pragmatic approach to getting the best results for clients, while managing the risks and costs.

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“Just to say a big thank you for your professionalism, friendship and understanding and for putting up with our little 'rants'. Your understanding of the law is second to none and I would not hesitate to recommend you. Many, many thanks.”
July 2019

Robert has a broad commercial practice and has handled thousands of disputes relating to many commercial activities and industry sectors. He has acted in claims ranging from a few thousand pounds to several million, including cases where the commercial implications of the dispute carry a greater value than the dispute itself.

Applying negotiation, mediation and litigation as appropriate, Robert is well-known for his tenacious yet pragmatic approach to getting the best results for clients, while managing the risks and costs.

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