The majority of financial penalties imposed by the courts are collected. But the significant cost of failing to bring in the remainder is highlighted today in a National Audit Office report. In 2000-2001, impositions which included fines, compensation awards to victims and prosecutors’ costs, totalled £385 million and collections £242 million – some of which related to penalties imposed in previous years – giving a payment rate of 63 per cent. In the same year, £74 million was written off, largely because the offenders could not be traced, and a further £77 million was cancelled by the courts.
The process of enforcement is often over-complex and time consuming, in some cases requiring many court hearings and other enforcement action, and including delays in executing warrants issued by the courts. The collection of financial penalties is hampered by unreliable management information making it difficult to compare performance between court areas.
Magistrates’ courts do not always initiate enforcement action promptly – a key factor in successful collection. However, from April 2002, magistrates’ courts committees will be allowed to use some of the money collected to strengthen their enforcement activities and recruit extra staff.
The report, presented to Parliament today by the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, makes a number of recommendations to the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the Home Office and Magistrates’ Courts Committees. They include:
- raising the profile of enforcement of financial penalties across the 42 magistrates’ court committees responsible for collection. Some enforcement staff considered that it was accorded a lower priority than other court work;
- strengthening arrangements to obtain and verify details of offenders’ means prior to sentence Although magistrates often inquire into an offenders’ means prior to sentence, courts rarely have systematic arrangements in place to obtain this information;
- reviewing with the Home Office the scope for legislative changes to enable magistrates’ courts to offer incentives to encourage prompt payment of financial penalties, for example a fine might increase if not paid promptly. Aside from the threat of enforcement action, there are no incentives to encourage immediate payment by offenders;
- reviewing the scope to permit further delegation from magistrates to administrative staff of responsibility for taking enforcement action, to help expedite enforcement;
- improving the completeness and accuracy of management information and introducing relevant and challenging indicators so that the performance of magistrates’ courts in collecting financial penalties can be measured and compared;
- expanding the range of enforcement training provided to court staff and improving the sharing of good practice across courts, building on recent conferences organised by the Department. Most staff expertise on enforcement issues is acquired on the job rather than as a result of specialist training;
- examining, with the Home Office, whether the current range of sentencing options is wide enough to minimise the imposition of uncollectable fines; and
- explore the possibility of creating “centres of excellence” at local, regional or national level to take responsibility for enforcement.