‘Cost of fine enforcement must be tackled without cutting compliance levels’ says Inspectorate
Inspectors have called for the fine enforcement system in Northern Ireland to be reviewed in an effort to reduce the pressure it places on the police and prison services, while retaining the current high levels of compliance.
“Fines are the mainstay of the criminal justice system, and are by far the most frequently used penalty in Northern Ireland’s Courts, with over 35,000 fines imposed in 2008,” said Dr Michael Maguire, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland currently has an enforcement system which has a compliance rate of 90%, where 45% of fines are paid within the current 28 day limit, and most of the rest are accounted for by enforcement action,” he said.
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice said that the high levels of compliance compared favourably with the position in Scotland, England and Wales and should provide confidence that the system here is working.
However, he indicated the high levels of compliance around fine enforcement came at a cost.
“Each year, Northern Ireland currently imprisons more people for fine default than most other countries.
“Defaulters make up nearly 30% of prison admissions which is a burden on the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), as most of these prison admissions are for very short sentences. Inspectors believe the number of people going to prison for fine default needs to be reduced,” he said.
“In addition to consuming the financial and human resources of the NIPS, the enforcement of small fines places a burden on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which sees it as a poor use of a police officer’s time. Inspectors recommend that police attention should be focused on dealing with the persistent fine defaulter,” added Dr Maguire.
The Chief Inspector indicated that concentrating police resources on these serious cases would cut the number of warrants passed to the PSNI for enforcement action, and reduce the amount of paper swirling around the system which can often go astray.
“We identified in this report a number of problems in the way in which warrants are currently dealt with which require improvement,” he said.
“Inspectors also believe the role of the Northern Ireland Court Service (NICtS) can also be enhanced, and welcome the initiatives already taken by the NICtS to improve compliance, and the effectiveness of fine collection in the early days, after the time for payment has elapsed,” said Dr Maguire.
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice has also called for a more co-ordinated approach to the enforcement of fines to be adopted across the criminal justice system.
Dr Maguire concluded by indicating that Government Ministers had already acknowledged the need for reform of the current enforcement system.
“The challenge however, will be to create a system which reduces the calls on the Police and Prison Services, without affecting the rate of compliance,” he said.