Vulnerable people recently prosecuted over TV licences include a domestic abuse victim relying on foodbanks and a carer who felt she was hardly given a chance to avoid a conviction. We have obtained court paperwork revealing the bleak stories of people in Wales who have been fined for failing to pay for a TV licence.

A TV licence costs £159 a year and you need one if you watch or record live TV or use iPlayer. The licence fee funds the BBC, which contracts the TV Licensing authority for enforcement. The authority describes prosecution as a "last resort". But the papers we have seen suggest that is not the reality. In some cases there was a gap of just a few weeks between an inspector's knock at the door and a prosecution. Promises made in a recent "action plan" from the authority don't seem to be reflected in some of the tragic cases we have seen.

TV licence cases are generally heard behind closed doors and are rarely reported on. But we have obtained paperwork showing how fines and criminal records are being issued to people who are already in a desperate situation. Many were single parents struggling to support their children. Several were seriously disabled. One visually impaired man convicted while barely able to heat his home told us: "I think they should be more tolerant of people who are struggling."

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Single mum charged after just three weeks

One 27-year-old single mother from Llanelli told an inspector on September 12 that she was on benefits and battling serious health issues. Just three weeks later she was charged with using a TV without a licence. In her guilty plea she wrote to the court she struggled daily with "debilitating health conditions" including stroke-like symptoms and chronic migraines as well as mental health issues.

"The reason I had to stop paying my TV licence was because my direct debit had gone to £40 a month and due to being on UC [Universal Credit] and PIP [Personal Independence Payment] that was not doable at all. Due to my mental health I find speaking on the phone a hard task to do so I always put off phoning. My finances are a big issue for me. After paying bills I'm left with roughly £300 a month to buy food, fuel, clothes etc as well as stuff for my daughter. I have now started a more affordable payment plan with TV licensing and will continue to pay weekly moving forward."

In this year's "action plan" the licensing authority pledged to "increase support for those in the prosecution process who – before their case goes to court – are making payments towards a licence so the prosecution can be withdrawn". The Llanelli mum said she had started a new payment plan within three weeks of the doorstep visit but her case was taken to court anyway and she was ordered to pay £214.

'Feeding my family became a priority'

A 45-year-old cable maker from Wrexham had a doorstep visit on July 7 and told the inspector: "I was struggling with bills due to tax payments out of my control. But that has been resolved now." Exactly a month later he was charged. It's worth remembering the authority's recent action plan says people should be given "every opportunity to buy a licence before any prosecution case is started".

In his guilty plea the man revealed he had been under an attachment of earnings order, which meant deductions had been taken straight from his earnings to pay a debt. He wrote: "The reason I stopped paying for my TV licence is I had an attachment of earnings on my wages taking £614.52 in April, £823.19 in May, and £177.98 in June. Feeding my family became a priority during these months and I needed to miss certain bills in order to afford food, electricity, and gas. Since the attachment of earnings has been repaid my TV licence is paid up to date."

Despite the man saying his licence payments were up to date – within a month of the home visit – the prosecution was not paused. Magistrates ordered the man to pay £330.

Domestic abuse survivor prosecuted despite saying she'd pay in full

A 34-year-old woman from Powys was visited by TV Licensing in June and charged in September. In her guilty plea she wrote: "I was in an abusive relationship involving police. My husband was controlling. I was left with no money and having to use foodbanks. My police crime reference is [redacted]. I have crisis team proof available. I have been waiting for student finance. I can now pay in full."

This prosecution seems jarring just a few months after a TV Licensing action plan included a pledge to "improve the process" for people to provide evidence that it would not be in "the public interest" to pursue a criminal case. The authority promised "more opportunities for people to provide evidence about their personal and financial circumstances". Despite the domestic abuse victim's mitigation – and her stated willingness to make the licence payment in full – the case was taken to court and she was ordered to pay £146.

'I am in a low-income zero-hours contract and have four young kids depending on me'

A 26-year-old local authority worker from Swansea was visited in April by an inspector – whom she told: "I am trying to keep my home warm and feed my family" – before being charged in August. In her guilty plea she wrote: "I had started paying TV licence for this year and once my financial situation got worse I couldn't continue as I am struggling to make ends meet. I am in a low-income zero-hours contract and have four young kids depending on me. I had to prioritise putting food on the table for them instead of paying some bills. I was put in a smart pay plan to better manage but with more bills to pay every month and the rising cost of living I also couldn't keep up with the payments. I did not pay but it wasn't because I didn't want to. It was because I couldn't."

The woman, who ended up with a £176 court bill, told WalesOnline she had missed one payment before she was out of the country for three months due to her children's health issues. She did not make payments during the period she was abroad and found some warning letters on her return home. "I did write to them to see if prosecution could be avoided and if there could be another way of getting it sorted but apparently it was too late for them to do anything," she added. "They should consider your circumstances and show more compassion to people. Of course a criminal record is a problem. It has been very stressful."

'Food, rent, and electric were more important'

Ian Jones, from Ponciau near Wrexham, told WalesOnline: "I think they should be more tolerant of people who are struggling." The 62-year-old, who is severely visually impaired, was visited in late April and told the inspector he was in financial difficulty. He was charged in August before magistrates issued a bill of £176.

Mr Jones has had memory issues since suffering a stroke when he was just 10. He receives around £400 a month in benefits and missed about four TV licence payments because he was prioritising essentials. "I thought food, rent, and electric were more important to be honest," he said. "Do you want the heating on or you want the telly on? I think they should forewarn people more. Some people aren't money-savvy or they could be elderly and not know what's going on. The licensing people seemed to rush it through."

He is now up to date with payments despite his benefits money being stretched thin. "I would love to go back to work. I've got a brilliant CV. I was behind a bar for 15 years, in Asda for nine years. But there's nothing going. My disability's not the problem – I think it's my age. When you phone up about a job and say you're 62 they think you'll die in half an hour." Mr Jones is hopeful his criminal record from the TV licensing prosecution will not hinder his job search.

Mum behind on rent after 'unfair' prosecution

A 41-year-old Cardiff mum who relies on benefits was visited by an inspector in July and told the officer she was a full-time carer for her disabled son. She was charged less than a month later and received a £176 court bill. Speaking to WalesOnline she described the process as unfair and "very quick" after she had only missed one quarterly payment. She said she had been put on a new payment plan by the visiting officer and thought that would be "the end of it", adding: "But they still decided to prosecute me".

The mum was baffled when we informed her of the TV Licensing pledge to prosecute as a "last resort" and to consider withdrawing prosecution when payments are being made. With the added burden of the court fine she is now behind on her rent, which has been rising.

'It felt like there was a gun to my head'

One Swansea window cleaner, whose wife has been seriously ill, told WalesOnline he only uses his TV to listen to radio programmes and was initially prepared to argue his case at Swansea Magistrates' Court. But when the 60-year-old turned up at court he learned the case had been put back to a later date in Merthyr Tydfil. By this point the prospect of more travel costs and a potential £1,000 fine if found guilty at trial had convinced him to enter a guilty plea.

In mitigation he wrote: "I had no transport to attend Merthyr along with the fact that I cannot leave my wife as I am her full-time carer and she is fully reliant on me and there was nobody else to stay with her... My daughter has now purchased a TV licence for my wife and me just to stop this from happening again... I am on Universal Credit benefit and my wife only gets PIP therefore money is very tight in the household and we really do struggle to make ends meet."

The man told us he felt he had "rolled over and been kicked in the teeth" but could not risk a heavy fine if he denied the charge. He ended up being ordered to pay £192 while his daughter is supporting him by "paying for a licence we don't even use". He said the saga had at times left him close to tears, adding: "It felt like there was a gun to my head."

'I think I've had a bit of a breakdown'

A 30-year-old woman from Rhyl was visited by an inspector in April and charged in early August. The woman, who relied on Universal Credit, wrote in her guilty plea: "I'm extremely sorry. I've been suffering from anxiety after I found out my father was alive after being told he was dead... My finances have been bad and it's caused me to bury my head in the sand. I've been to scared to open letters and they have piled up. I've been ringing any debt I have to arrange payment plans to get myself back on track. I please ask that I don't want to attend court as I wouldn't be able to cope."

She continued: "I think I've had a bit of a breakdown so I'm going to the doctors to get the help I need as the situation I've been through isn't really normal." When the case reached court the woman was ordered to pay £232.

Mum was battling 'severe' mental health issues

In May an inspector attended the home of a Llanelli mum in her 30s. During the visit she told him: "I suffer with mental health issues." The woman was charged in August.

She wrote in her guilty plea at the start of September: "I've had a really rough year, been through court fighting for custody for my children. I've won full custody now. I suffer with severe mental health and self-harm due to [a past trauma]. I am having counselling now... I do apologise for this and will be setting up a new TV licence from September 8. I apologise to the court and I really do hope you go lenient on me due to my current situation." Magistrates imposed a total bill of £176.

'I had to send my mobility scooter back because of the crisis'

One disabled 47-year-old woman from Cardiff was prosecuted at a time when she was struggling so badly with the cost of living crisis that she sent back her mobility scooter. When she was visited in July she told the inspector she was an unemployed stroke survivor with disability on her right side as well as anxiety and depression. Less than a month later she was charged.

The woman initially pleaded not guilty. In the plea she wrote: "I've been paying it. They send a text to my phone but this year 2023 I didn't pay it for about eight weeks because of the crisis like gas, electric, food going up. I had to send my mobility scooter back because of the crisis."

She later changed her plea to guilty. The single justice procedure service told us it could not share this plea document for confidentiality reasons. Magistrates imposed a court bill of £204.

Single mum-of-four charged three weeks after inspector's visit

One 31-year-old mum from Bridgend was visited in September and charged just three weeks later. She wrote in her guilty plea: "I know I haven't paid my TV licence but honestly I've had a lot going on with my son. I'm going through a lot with him and got a lot of people involved. I am so sorry, I am a single mum with four kids, I was paying it and then something else come up. It's always something." The woman landed a court bill of £176.

TV Licensing tells us prosecution is 'always a last resort'

Earlier this year Home Office figures showed around 1,700 people were being convicted each week for TV licence evasion in England and Wales. About three-quarters of those convicted are women. In a review in May the BBC said it was "very concerned" by the gender disparity. The UK Government has announced plans to "work with TV Licensing to explore options to signpost women to get more support".

A TV Licensing spokesman told us: “TV Licensing’s primary aim is to help people stay licensed and avoid prosecution – which is always a last resort. We have a dedicated team that reviews an individual’s case to stop it proceeding to court if we receive evidence showing that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute. We provide defendants additional guidance about the prosecution process and how to submit mitigating evidence.”

The authority says prosecutions have reduced by 66% over the last five years and that "multiple" letters are sent to homes before inspectors visit. A "dedicated team" reviews each case to stop it proceeding to court if evidence is received "showing that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute", according to the authority.