Saturday, 26 January 2013

Fines - all is not fine

Recently it was announced that unpaid fines still add up to £600 million - Law Society Gazette 21st January 2013.  (A vastly greater sum is owed if matters other than fines are considered).  Justice Minister Helen Grant MP is reported to have said that the collection system will be overhauled and a commercial partner brought in to help with collection.

A recent decision of the Administrative Court demonstrates the inefficiency existing in the system of fine enforcement - R(Purnell) v South Western Magistrates Court [2013] EWHC 64 (Admin).  The case highlights the fact that London has four databases to store information relating to fines.  Offenders are not, of course, obliging
enough to contain their offending to the area of just one database and so information about an individual could be held on any combination of the four.  Obviously, in addition, an offender may have outstanding fines imposed by courts outside of London. Hence, when it comes to enforcement, the court may well have inadequate information and may have to rely on information supplied by the offender by way of a 'means form' and whatever questions are put at the hearing.  Ultimately, the court may be taking an enforcement decision without having all the information relating to monies owed.

The High Court's judgment is quite short and worth reading in full.  The court began by noting that - ' First, courts or other bodies entitled to impose penalties do not have proper information before them when they make their decisions and may therefore impose further fines or financial penalties which an offender has no prospect of paying. Second, the enforcement of fines is made time-consuming, expensive and very difficult, particularly in the case of persistent offenders. That in turn undermines public confidence in the efficacy of financial penalties as an effective punishment.'

and, at paras. 36 to 38:
  1. Confidence in the criminal justice system is very severely undermined if fines are imposed in amounts which cannot realistically be discharged; it is particularly damaging in the case of persistent offenders.

  2. Given the present very difficult circumstances arising first from an obsolete computer system which appears to be no longer fit for purpose and second severe pressure on the staff and Legal Advisers in the Magistrates' Courts, it is not realistic to envisage matters being remedied through better provision of information about outstanding fines by HMCTS to the court.

  3. The only practical remedy is to ask courts to enquire closely before imposing a fine at any enforcement hearing as to whether there are any other outstanding fines and make clear the serious consequences to the offender or defaulter in not providing accurate information. We appreciate the additional burden this will place on legal advisers, District Judges and Magistrates, but we can see no realistic alternative.
The real alternative is that the Ministry of Justice takes appropriate action to enable better provision of information to enforcement courts.  The total amount outstanding is a scandal which ought to be addressed with much greater urgency.


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  2. As a point of curiosity-

    From the sounds of the Gazette article, it seems that the £600m figure is the outstanding balance of all recoverable amounts less all payments received.

    It therefore doesn't take into account periodic payment arrangements made with debtors (whether informal, attachment of earnings or deduction from benefits) which are in place and working towards clearing the debt over time.

    If that's correct, then there is always going to be a certain amount of 'unpaid' debt which is ultimately being recovered but which still shows up as 'unpaid' on the balance sheets. Logically, this amount would not change greatly from year to year as old fines were paid off and new fines were imposed.

    It would be interesting to see how much of the £600m is subject to viable payment arrangements and how much has been effectively written off