My life flashed before my eyes when I was hit with a £438 fine and threatened with bailiffs, the removal of my car and even a possible stint behind bars - all because I didn't have a TV licence for 15 days.

It all started one afternoon in January last year when I heard a knock at the door. As I swung it open, I was greeted by a man I assumed was a police officer - he was dressed all in black with a high-vis body camera strapped to his chest. 

It was a TV Licence Officer, a role outsourced to a private business that 'processes services', Capita Experience, but he was friendly enough to lure me into a light-hearted conversation.

We scoffed at the weather, discussed my working from home, my job in general, my battered-looking car on the driveway from a car crash I'd recently been in, how long I'd lived in the area - then at the address and if I was aware that I had no TV licence.

I explained I didn't know and that it couldn't have been long - my ex-partner used to pay it monthly and had recently moved out. I hadn't received any reminder letters and I confessed, I forgot. 

That, and my ex took his TV with him, so it's not like I had a physical reminder, either.

I admitted I'd watched an episode of The Apprentice on BBC iPlayerI admitted I'd watched an episode of The Apprentice on BBC iPlayer (Image: NQ/Unsplash)

But I did have a projector with a Firestick and somehow ended up admitting to having watched an episode of The Apprentice on BBC iPlayer, which had just aired in the last two weeks.

I received a verbal caution for my honest confession and set up a direct debit to resume paying the licence. A confirmation letter in the post then came the next day for my payment plan - and a second letter, with my name misspelt, which stated I wouldn't be prosecuted "this time". I forgot all about the interaction.

A few weeks later, my landlord wanted to sell his house. I moved out in March and transferred all my bills to the new address.

Fast forward to August and I received a scary scam-looking letter through the post which, in short, told me to cough up £438 'or else'.

The 'further steps notice' came from the Greater Manchester Accounts and Enforcement Unit and said since I had "failed to make payments as directed", I could look forward to a hit to my credit rating, my car being clamped, removed and sold, and/or enforcement agents barging in to take my goods, unless I paid the full amount in 10 days.

The phone number rang out indefinitely. Over the countless times I punched that number in over the nine-month-long saga that followed, no one answered. Google reviews tell a similar tale with most querying if it is all one big sham.

The threatening letters I received from GM Accounts and EnforcementThe threatening letters I received from GM Accounts and Enforcement (Image: NQ)

I did get through via email though and a woman from the enforcement team called me and informed me the fine relates to a TV licence prosecution dated in January 2023.

I breathed a sigh of relief: "It's a mistake. I've been paying the licence ever since."

She doubled down: "No, you've been prosecuted. There's footage of you admitting to watching BBC iPlayer."

She explained the fee had spiralled from an initial fine due to my 'failure' to turn up in court, meaning there were now court fees and a victim surcharge added to the fine.

I was presented with two options: a fine review, which I believed was a route to appeal the amount, or a statutory declaration, which reopens court proceedings but allows me to inform magistrates I was unaware of the prosecution since I'd moved house.

Either way, I'd pay a fine, she said, as I was ultimately guilty of not having a TV licence for 15 days.

The 'stat dec' contact centre urged me to go down the fine review route and the enforcement team discouraged me from it. I was told the route has an overwhelming backlog of cases but I felt I didn't have a choice seeing as I had a fine to pay regardless.

She said I could start by making a dent in the fine while it is under review. I filled out a means-tested form. There was no other way for me to argue my case.

The enforcement agent rang me again and quizzed me about my income and outgoings. I set up a monthly direct debit of £25 towards the fine and she said I could send an email arguing my case 'IF' I wanted to but that there is no guarantee the decision-maker would even look at it.

Letters from the TV Licencing company show I shouldn't have been prosecutedLetters from the TV Licencing company show I shouldn't have been prosecuted (Image: NQ)

On October 5, the day after my birthday, I received another terrifying letter of a summons to court as I had "failed" to pay £403. Note how the letter recognised I had paid £25 as per the payment plan but that I should pay "all the money owed at once" or attend the summons where the magistrate would decide "whether to make you pay by sending you to prison or in some other way".

After another frenzied email, another agent called me and explained the letter had been sent in error.

My summons was cancelled but had been sent because 'someone' in the enforcement team didn't believe I could pay £25 per month based on my other financial commitments, despite paying on time and setting up the standing order.

I'm still gobsmacked that jail term is a genuine alternative for people deemed in debt or on low income. The only outstanding debt I have is student loans - I've never missed a bill payment or got into any arrears in my life.

Still, even if I couldn't afford £25 a month, where did they think I'd be able to get £403 "at once" to avoid going to prison?

Anyway, I then decided to go down the 'stat dec' route since my faith in the enforcement team and the impossible fine review route had been obliterated. 

My payments were then suspended until I'd had my day in court.

I had a form to fill out with only a few questions, asking me how and when I first found out about the prosecution and my reasons for making a late declaration - which is because of the farce with the fine review route.

I was prosecuted for not having a TV licence for 15 daysI was prosecuted for not having a TV licence for 15 days (Image: NQ)

My stat dec bundle also included copies from the TV licencing company that had been sent to my old address. I found out they had decided to prosecute me at the end of May, more than four months after the man had knocked on my door and more than two months after I had moved out and changed the licence to my new address.

My hearing was meant to be held on May 7 at Manchester Magistrates' Court. Another letter came saying it was then rescheduled from June 3 to May 28 - so just another mistake on an important letter, then.

Anyway, the big day finally came around and I didn't know what to expect when I trudged into the court building armed with my folder of evidence and my dad for moral support.

My hearing was scheduled for 1.30pm, but there was no one at reception and a security officer said the clerks were on lunch until 2pm. We waited with several other people gathered outside Court 14, who had also been told to come at the time when no one is around.

Eventually, I was called inside and I read out my statutory declaration to three magistrates. I also had the chance, at long last, to have my say and explain what had happened.

I apologised to the court for what I felt was naivety on my part but said it was perhaps one big misunderstanding. I admitted I was guilty, that I didn't have a TV licence for 15 days, but I was never meant to be prosecuted. I frantically waved my letters, but they didn't even look at them before delivering their verdict.

My declaration was late because the fine review route was not possibleMy declaration was late because the fine review route was not possible (Image: NQ)

The fine was cancelled. They were satisfied my 'evasion' was not intentional, but I do have a 12-month conditional discharge to be mindful of. 

While I'm relieved I can close this chapter now, the whole fiasco has been a farce from start to finish.

It was ultimately a waste of magistrates' time - no wonder there's a backlog - and I had been treated like a criminal for what? Forgetting? Making a mistake? Being honest? Not earning enough money?

But my battle with the bullying BBC's TV licencing company is, unfortunately, not unique.

Thousands of people become ensnared in the trap every single week across the country, where there is no margin for the simplest of human errors or mitigating circumstances - like moving house, being disabled, divorced, widowed or having suffered some other traumatic event, as is well documented by The Evening Standard's court reporter, Tristen Kirk.

The punitive system will have it so that you're stamped with a conviction and burdened with a heavy fine without letting you speak.

It's mostly women who are being prosecuted by the TV licencing company It's mostly women who are being prosecuted by the TV licencing company (Image: PA)

In March this year, MPs discussed whether it was time to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee after finding a disproportionate number of those convicted, around 75 per cent, are women.

In Greater Manchester, 889 people were prosecuted for non-payment of their TV licence in 2022, of which 659 (73 per cent) were women.

Last year, the BBC published a review on the gender disparity in prosecution for TV licence evasion and found "no evidence of direct discrimination".

I can't say I felt discriminated by the process, but between the threatening court letters, the administrative errors, the stress, the punitive enforcement team and the unforgiving, faceless bureaucracy of the TV licencing company, and the narrow window of opportunity to defend yourself, I can see why people lose faith in the system - and slam the door in the face of TV licence enforcement officers when they come knocking.

Criminalisation clearly isn't working when otherwise innocent citizens are facing the brutal brunt end of the justice system.

I was fortunate the court took pity on me and that I could say my piece, but others panicked by the letters and the Single Justice Procedure may be unaware of the routes available to them, and may be stuck between a rock and a hard place as they face coughing up hundreds of pounds or time behind bars - all for watching an episode of The Apprentice.

When I contacted the TV licensing company, I waited a week for a response and still did not receive an apology for my ordeal, though I was told by the BBC that it does not use bailiffs and "no one goes to prison for non-payment of the TV Licence".

A TV Licensing spokesperson also said: “Anyone who watches live TV or iPlayer must have a current TV Licence.

"TV Licensing Visiting Officers look for evidence that the law has been broken during visits, and if the customer has agreed to make payments to avoid prosecution, officers explain that these must be maintained.

“We then write to customers explaining again the need to maintain payments and asking if there are particular reasons which led to them not having a licence. If we receive any information from the customer, we consider it before a case is laid at court.

“TV Licensing’s primary aim is to help people stay licensed and prosecution is always a last resort.

"We offer guidance on the TV Licensing website to support customers stay licensed, including information on what to do when moving home."

The Greater Manchester Accounts and Enforcement Unit has also been contacted for comment.

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