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Fines are the most common sentence imposed by magistrates’ courts but many offenders are still either unwilling or unable to pay, with the result that Her Majesty’s Courts Service has to take enforcement action against most offenders. Too many offenders leave court without paying their fines in full and too many court hearings are wasted on cancelling fines. The National Audit Office estimates that reducing the number of legally cancelled fines by 25 per cent and improving prompt payment of fines could save around £8 million a year.

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The Department for Constitutional Affairs is getting to grips with this problem, introducing a series of measures to improve the collection and enforcement of financial penalties imposed by the courts since the NAO last reported on this subject, but over two thirds of the cases examined by the NAO required enforcement action before the offender made any payments. Her Majesty’s Courts Service has introduced measures to improve the collection of fines, including chasing defaulters, who can be difficult to trace, but there are a number of other measures that would bring about further increases in the amount collected, for example:

  • having enough information so that magistrates can set an appropriate fine in the first place, avoiding court hearings to cancel fines which were imposed without enough information on offenders’ ability to pay;
  • encouraging immediate payment, including providing facilities for the offender to pay before leaving the court building, and
  • closely monitoring the payment of fines, including taking a more active role in pursuing fines and in varying the terms of payment, where circumstances have changed, without the need for a court hearing.

A standard means form introduced by Her Majesty’s Courts Service has improved the information on an offender’s ability to pay available to magistrates when setting fines, but information about outstanding fines and the offender’s payment history is not always available. The cost of enforcing fines that are later cancelled is an estimated £21 million a year and the cancellation hearings cost an estimated £6.8 million. Reducing the number of legally cancelled fines by 25 per cent would save about £6.9 million annually. 

Improvements can also be made in the collection of fines. A policy in Devon and Cornwall of asking for immediate payment has doubled the number of offenders paying before leaving the court. Similar improvements on a national scale would save £1 million in enforcement costs. A more active approach to enforcement – such as in Cumbria, where defaulters are telephoned before their next payment is due as well as contacted by post – could also increase payment rates. 

“The Department for Constitutional Affairs has taken positive steps on fines collection since we last reported on this subject in 2002 but our study revealed that some offenders cannot pay their fines, and many others are determined not to pay until forced to do so. If justice is to be done, it is essential that those who have been given a financial penalty by the courts should pay up. To this end, fines must be set at a level appropriate to the offender’s ability to pay, and effective action should be taken to enforce them. Evidence from some areas suggests that a more robust approach to collection from the start can change the culture of non-payment among offenders.”

The NAO report makes a number of recommendations to improve the collection and enforcement of fines, including: reinforcing guidance that any unpaid fines should be disclosed before new fines are imposed; providing means forms outside the courtroom which must be completed before the case is heard; making payment facilities available at each court; increasing the effort devoted to the early stages of enforcement, and addressing IT issues which can make it hard for court staff to verify information. In addition, HM Courts Service should develop new ways of measuring fines collection, so it can more reliably assess the effectiveness of its collection and enforcement measures and make direct comparisons between years. Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office


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