POTENTIALLY vulnerable people in Wales are at risk of jail if they fall foul of legal orders which experts have warned they may not be able to follow. 

Research has shown how the use of civil injunctions to address antisocial behaviour is leading to mentally ill people being jailed by courts in Wales and England. 

Cases heard in Cardiff have included people being detained for having visitors to their homes while people have also been handed suspended prison sentences effectively for shouting and swearing in the street. 

“Antisocial behaviour” is a broad legal term that covers actions ranging from harassment or threats to playing loud music, drinking in the street or even sleeping rough. 

In Wales and England, this used to be dealt with via the antisocial behaviour order (ASBO) but 2014 legislation introduced a new way to tackle the issue: a civil injunction, which sets out a list of things the recipient cannot do or actions they must take. If the person breaks these rules, they are considered in contempt of court – which can be punished with prison. 

The injunctions that have led to sentencing for breaches at the civil court in Cardiff have been applied for by housing providers including Cardiff Council, Newport City Homes and Merthyr Tydfil Housing Association among others. 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has carried out in depth research into the use of such orders and how breaches are punished across Wales and England, has highlighted how people often face their court hearings with no legal representation and they can be sent to prison even if their actions are deemed to have caused no real harm. 

Under these rules in the last three years those imprisoned have included a homeless man who was given six months in jail for breaching an injunction that ordered him to stop begging and another man sentenced to 15 weeks for failing to stop feeding pigeons from his balcony. In one instance a woman was moved directly from a mental health hospital to a six-month prison stretch. 

The Bureau’s research also identified how Cardiff is one of three areas, along with Bristol and Manchester, that most appeared in the 156 judgements, published from 2019 to mid 2022, that it was able to analyse. 

However it cautioned it couldn’t be confirmed those courts issued the most such judgments as some others have simply ignored Ministry of Justice guidance and haven’t bothered publishing the judgements as they are required to. 

The Bureau found: 

  • At least every eight days someone is in court facing prison for breaching an antisocial behaviour injunction. 
  • Women make up 27 per cent of people jailed for antisocial behaviour – a proportion seven times higher than women in the wider prison population. 
  • At some hearings, judges openly expressed concern that the person’s actions had caused no real harm but, given the limited sentencing options for contempt of court, sent them to jail anyway. 

Several lawyers told the Bureau that the majority of the people they had seen given injunctions did not have the mental capacity to face court, let alone adhere to the rules of the injunction.

It also identified that scores of people are being sent to prison each year on short sentences for relatively minor issues.  

In some cases they were up in court facing prison just a week after being given the initial injunction. In one instance, a man imprisoned for breaching an injunction ordering him to stop begging in public was sent back to prison just days after his first stretch ended for breaching the same injunction. 

The analysis also revealed the average sentence was just 86 days. Some were as little as two weeks. In many instances people were sent to prison in the height of the pandemic, when Covid was known to be raging through prisons and people were locked in cells for 22.5 hours a day on average. Some of those facing prison for breaching their injunction caught Covid while being held on remand. 

Andrea Albutt, the president of the Prison Governors Association, told the Bureau that such sentences are pointless.  

“Invariably the reason why the person has the antisocial behaviour injunction is because of their mental health,” she said, “and if they come [to prison] for short periods of time, we don’t have them long enough to stabilise them [and] their antisocial behaviour becomes worse. 

“They can become very psychotic when they come into prison and we do not have the facilities to manage them. Putting people in prison for short periods of time for a civil offence is just crazy.” 

When the new civil injunctions were created in 2014, they were designed to tackle disruptive behaviour both in domestic settings and in public. Applications for an injunction could be made by a range of people and official bodies, including police, council officers, housing providers and British Transport Police. 

Yet the Bureau found that 97 per cent of judgments for injunction breaches since 2019 were brought by social housing providers or councils (where the complainant was known). The charity ASB Help recently ran a training course for 400 police officers about antisocial behaviour and were surprised to hear most officers had never considered using injunctions. 

While some of the orders, including those made in Wales, are intended to place additional curbs on people, such as restrictions on who can visit their homes, others relate to behaviour that could be criminal, such as making threats to others. 

If dealt with through the criminal justice system the courts would have a wider range of sentencing powers, including requiring people work with the probation service and address their behaviour.  

Some lawyers say that the new injunctions have essentially served to shift the responsibility for dealing with low-level criminality on to housing associations. “They are now taking on the mantle of community police force,” said lawyer Ben Taylor. “It doesn’t work.” 

Lawyers at Doughty Street Chambers said they had noticed an increase in applications for antisocial behaviour injunctions during the pandemic when a pause on possession hearings prevented landlords from evicting tenants. However an injunction meant that the case would be prioritised when the courts reopened – and an injunction breach would mean the judge had no choice but to allow the eviction. 

Social landlords could therefore use antisocial behaviour injunctions as a means of fast-tracking an eviction – but with the unintended side-effect of the evicted tenant possibly being sent to prison. Since the first lockdown, social housing providers and councils have brought 93 injunction breaches to court, of which 41 ended in the person being sent straight to prison, according to the Bureau. 

How have people in Wales been sentenced for breaching civil injunctions?

Among judgements studied by the Bureau from Wales was a man from Caerphilly who breached an injunction applied for by United Welsh Housing Association which resulted in a 20 day prison sentence. 

Though the order forbid him from making threats to his neighbour it also prevented him from having people visit his home and he was also found in breach as “loud banging noises” were heard coming from his home, which was deemed a "nuisance to others". 

A man who breached an order granted to Merthyr Tydfil Housing Association was jailed for a month by accepting visitors to his property. The injunction limited his visitors, including family, to “exclusively his mother or sister”, with only one allowed at a time. 

In Cardiff, a woman subject to an order granted to Cardiff council, was given a 14 day sentence, suspended provided she comply with an extended injunction. She was found in breach as she had used abusive language towards a Police Community Support Office, “banged on the doors” of a named property and “generally shouted and swore”. 

A man and woman from the city were both jailed for eight weeks in November 2020 for having visitors overnight at their property in the Adamsdown district and for “causing a nuisance/annoyance, alarm or distress to anyone in lawful activity in the vicinity” of the address.  

The woman was jailed for a further 12 weeks in August last year when she was again judged to have caused a nuisance in breach of the order granted to Cardiff council. 

Of the 18 judgements issued in Wales seven were brought by Cardiff County Council. 

A spokesperson for the council said it takes antisocial behaviour “seriously” and it “works hard” to engage with both parties to understand “their needs and any support they may already have in place”. 

The council said it is aware it is dealing with potentially vulnerable people and its aim when using injunctions is to try and keep people in their homes by addressing problematic behaviour. 

“The vulnerability of each party is taken into consideration and part of our intervention involves ensuring individuals have access to the right services to meet their needs, for example, mental health help or substance misuse support. 

"We have no targets to meet for the use of injunctions and the primary consideration for their use is not eviction, but rather as a tool to resolve a situation so a tenancy can be sustained rather than ended. 

“Legal proceedings are always a last resort as we seek to work with tenants and partner agencies, such as the police, mental health support and social services, to ensure that any issues that do arise are resolved appropriately. We take a restorative approach to all cases, using methods such as mediation, restorative meetings, tenancy advice and behaviour contracts. 

“Unfortunately, not all issues can be resolved in these ways. When an injunction is sought, it is to protect our tenants, or those affected by tenants’ actions, for example, persistent anti-social behaviour where the quality of life for the complainant is being substantially compromised, or an incident of abuse, violence or threat of violence where this intervention is required to protect the complainant. 

“When an injunction is breached, this is a matter for the court to decide if a custodial sentence is necessary. This happens very rarely in cases brought by the council.” 

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The UK Government also said it is committed to tackling antisocial behaviour due to the impact on communities and said it had given powers to authorities to deal with the issue.

A spokesman said: "The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the police, local authorities and other agencies with flexible powers they can use to protect communities and prevent harm. It is for local areas to determine how best to deploy these powers, however, we expect them to be used proportionately.”

Produced in partnership with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism