10th PAC Report 2006-07
Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“If justice is to be served, then the punishments imposed on offenders must actually be carried out. But each year millions of pounds in fines imposed by the courts are simply not collected. National Audit Office work suggests that a half of fines are not fully paid after six months and two thirds of fines are paid up only as a result of enforcement action which can cost more than the amount collected.
“Strenuous steps must be taken to get this ridiculous situation under control. The Department for Constitutional Affairs must dispel its current fog of ignorance about how much money is collected each year and how many people pay up. The seemingly endless delays to the introduction of Libra, its long awaited management information system, mean that the Department does not have the basic information it needs.
“If offenders refuse to pay fines after leaving their hearings, then the answer is to make as many as possible pay up on the day. Defendants who attend court must be left in no doubt that, should they be found guilty and fined, they will have to pay immediately or face arrangements for deducting the money from their earnings or benefits. There should also be financial incentives for prompt payment and financial penalties for late payment. The integrity of our legal system requires these and other arrangements to be introduced nationally without delay.”
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 10th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Constitutional Affairs and Her Majesty’s Courts Service, examined the information available on the payment of fines, how courts might set appropriate penalties and how they might increase and speed up the payment of fines. The Committee previously reported on fines collection and on Libra in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
In 2004-05, the courts imposed over one million financial penalties with a value of some £350 million. The Department for Constitutional Affairs does not know, however, how many offenders pay their fines, nor what proportion (by value) of the fines imposed in any year is collected. Instead, the Department measures its performance with “the payment rate”, calculating the fines collected each year (including those imposed in previous years) as a proportion of the annual fines imposed, less those cancelled. This is not an adequate measure of performance as it creates an incentive to cancel fines and takes no account of the time taken to pay them. The Department has reported an improvement in the “payment rate” year on year since 2002-03, but the actual value of fines collected has remained almost constant. The lack of basic data needed to provide more useful measures of performance is due to continued delays in the introduction of the Department’s new IT system, Libra.
In 2004-05, almost a fifth of the fines imposed, by value, were cancelled. The Department cannot provide a detailed breakdown of the reasons for cancellations, but believes the main cause is the courts setting fines at too high a level due to a lack of information on the offender’s means to pay. Since the Committee last reported, the Department has taken steps to improve the information used by the courts in deciding on the level of fine by, for example, introducing means forms. These measures, however, are not being implemented consistently across all areas, with the availability of means information ranging from 5 to 67% of cases.
Offenders are slow to pay their fines, with only one in twenty paying their fines on the day of sentencing, and half paying within six months of the court case. The Department is making more effort to pursue those who do not pay, but setting appropriate fines at the outset and getting defendants to pay on the day would be more effective. At present, there is no advantage to the offender in paying the fine immediately. Enforcement costs are not passed on to defaulters nor are they charged interest on outstanding fines. Nor does the Department use other financial incentives, such as reductions, to encourage timely payment.
Notes for Editors
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