Offenders dodge 41% of fines, says PAC

28 Nov 02
Offenders who fail to pay fines or compensation will have their assets seized and pay or benefits docked, it was announced this week

29 November 2002

It follows a damning report from MPs that magistrates' enforcement for court penalties was so poor that offenders were paying fines on an 'almost voluntary' basis.

The Public Accounts Committee revealed that 41% of the £387m worth of fines imposed last year went unpaid. Magistrates courts committees, which are responsible for enforcement, wrote off £58m of fines because they could not find offenders. A further £90m was also abandoned because they either had no hope of collecting it or offenders' appeals were successful.

The committees also had poor information systems and could not even provide basic data on offenders or outstanding fines.

PAC chair Edward Leigh said the system failed 'the taxpayer and the victims of crime'. He said: 'Fines are a punishment but the haphazard approach to their collection is far from a deterrent.'

Yvette Cooper, minister for the courts, responded on November 26 by announcing that poor performing committees will be 'receiving visits' from officials. They will also be expected to produce action plans detailing how they will improve and will have to introduce a data-sharing system with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Cooper said that if every committee performed as well as the top ten, national collection rates would increase from 59% to 70%. 'There are unacceptable variations in fine enforcement from under 40% in Merseyside to over 80% in Dorset. Fine enforcement should not depend on where offenders live,' she said.

Cooper also outlined new powers for the courts, including higher penalties for late payment and seizing the assets of serial defaulters. Courts will also have to appoint fine officers to chase debts while magistrates will be given the option to impose community penalties rather than debts.

In the longer term, Cooper said new legislation would merge the magistrates' and crown courts into one body accountable to the Lord Chancellor's Department. The body will have to work under a framework that will identify areas of local poor collection.


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