It is a damning indictment of the way the BBC administer the TV licence system that sometimes, despite legitimate non-TV viewers playing by the rules, TV Licensing still decide to take legal action against them for an offence they have not committed.
All the evidence would suggest that legal proceedings are actually very rare indeed, despite TV Licensing doing their utmost to publicise their successful prosecutions in the local press. However, when court is in the offing TV Licensing rely heavily on the fact that most people are so legally unaware they'll just roll over and accept their fate. Better still if it's someone on a low income, unemployed, housebound or elderly because they are far less likely to attend court and put up a defence for fear of incurring additional legal costs.
Court is like a "sausage factory" to TV Licensing. They'll book an afternoon of court time and throw literally dozens of cases at the Magistrates for what is tantamount to a rubber-stamping exercise. TV Licensing know this, so they sometimes throw in dubious cases in the hope they'll evade the Magistrates' bullshit detector as they dispense justice on autopilot.
As we've said many times before a TV licence is only needed for properties where equipment is installed or used to receive or record live broadcast TV programmes. If you do not use equipment for that purpose then you can't possibly be breaking the law and that is a fact. That might fly in the face of what TV Licensing would have people believe, but bear in mind that they have a pecuniary interest in selling as many licences as possible. It is not in TV Licensing's interests to clarify points of law - they are quite happy for people to live under the misapprehension they need a TV licence when they might not.
People "caught" without a TV licence fall into two broad categories: Those who need one and those who genuinely don't. Below we offer a few words of advice for people falling into those categories:
1. People who have been watching/recording live TV programmes without a valid TV licence:
If you fall into this category then you have been committing an offence under s. 363 of the Communications Act 2003. Unpalatable as it may be the best course of action is to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. If you do this the court is duty bound to offer you a more lenient penalty, which will probably be a modest fine around the £100 mark.
Sometimes a TV Licensing visiting officer accepts licence fee payment from an evader and says "don't worry, because you've paid you'll not be prosecuted". That is not the case. TV Licensing visiting officers are under strict instructions to accept any payment on the understanding it does not prejudice any future criminal proceedings. That means just because you have been caught and paid up you could still be prosecuted, despite any reassuring words to the contrary by a visiting officer.
It's actually quite a nice little earner for visiting officers to be disingenuous like this because they receive a commission payment for accepting your licence fee and they receive an additional commission payment if you are successfully prosecuted later on.
2. People who legitimately do not need a licence, yet TV Licensing are still pursuing them:
You must not plead guilty just for a quiet life. If you genuinely know you did not commit the offence then you should attend court and argue the fact, with as much evidence in your favour as you can.
If you're putting up a defence then you are entitled to all the documents TV Licensing hold relating to your case. You should scrutinise those documents carefully to make sure they are factually correct. We are aware of several cases where TV Licensing documents have been riddled with inconsistency.
Sometimes TV Licensing hedge their bets and summon people to court on the most tenuous of evidence, unsubstantiated suspicion, or simply because they don't like them (people like us who vocally oppose what they do).
When a person pleads not guilty it upsets the equilibrium. Alarm bells go off at Crapita Towers and they think "hold on, are we really doing the right thing by pursuing this person?" If you're one of the dubious cases, where they know they're trying it on, they will find a reason to drop the case before it gets to court.
What they don't want is people presenting evidence in court that proves they are not guilty. It seriously undermines the tactics TV Licensing employ if a TV was "detected" in a house that was unoccupied because the owner was on holiday in Florida. Quite often a not guilty defendant will turn up at court to hear on the day that TV Licensing has dropped the case against them. TV Licensing are arrogant like that: they'll happily drag someone miles to court and then tell them there was no need to attend after all.
If you're wrongly found guilty by the Magistrates it's not the end of the road, but then is definitely the time to take considered legal advice.
The best of luck to anyone in category 2 above and we look forward to hearing your story.