More than 4,800 people were taken to court and threatened with prison for not paying a council tax debt in 2016-17, data seen by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme suggests.
The figure has risen 11% in four years, despite 2013 government guidance saying court action should be a “last resort”, the Institute of Money Advisers said.
At least 62 people were locked up in England and Wales in 2016-17.
The Local Government Association said it was “essential” to collect funds.
“It is not fair for the overwhelming majority of citizens that pay their council tax to let those who don’t pay their fair share continue to do so,” it said.
Council tax is spent on services such as care for vulnerable adults, looking after children, and road repairs.
The majority of people formally threatened with prison cleared their debt, managed to negotiate a payment plan with their local authority or received a suspended sentence.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, local authorities are not allowed to imprison people for non-payment of council tax.
‘Out of step’
The IMA’s findings – seen by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme – are based on the replies of 279 of 348 local “billing” authorities in England and Wales to a Freedom of Information request.
The report’s author, Alistair Chisholm, said the approach to council tax debts was “completely out of step with the way other debts can be recovered”.
“You can’t go to prison for failing to pay an electricity bill or your rent,” he added.
“It’s time the law was changed in England and Wales so that council tax debt collection focuses on the circumstances, income and assets of a person and is not used to threaten their liberty.”
The average council tax debt in the cases cited in the report was £2,213.
A magistrate can impose up to three months in jail for non-payment of council tax.
Before imprisonment can be considered, the council should try to recover the debt using bailiffs and must “enquire” into the defendant’s means to pay.
But the IMA claims courts do not always interpret the law correctly and there is strong evidence that miscarriages of justice have occurred.
In January 2017, London’s High Court found that Melanie Woolcock from Bridgend in South Wales had been unlawfully imprisoned for failing to pay £10-a-week towards her council tax debt.
After she failed to keep up with her payments, bailiffs were called, and although she had paid £100 towards the debt she was told it was “too late” and arrested.
She spent 40 days of an 81-day sentence in prison, eventually being released on bail after lawyers launched emergency proceedings.
Government guidance urges councils to explore other enforcement actions, like direct deductions from benefits or earnings.
The Local Government Association said “councils face a £5.8bn funding shortfall by 2020, which is why it’s essential councils collect these funds.
“Councils offer a variety of support to people on low incomes, or who are struggling with financial difficulties.”
Watch the Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.