A review of the impact of current fine default strategy and services

Publication: 09/07/21
Image of the cover of the Effective Penalty Enforcement Report
Action needed to help Fine Collection and Enforcement Service maintain progress in collecting unpaid fines and dealing with historic debt

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, has welcomed the work of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Services’ Fine Collection and Enforcement Service (FCS) to collect unpaid fines and recommended action to support its service delivery and deal with historic debt.
An inspection report published today (9 July 2021) by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) examined the arrangements in place to take enforcement action when someone defaults and fails to pay either a fixed penalty notice, a fine or other financial penalty imposed by a court.
“Thousands of fines worth millions of pounds are imposed by courts in Northern Ireland every year.  In 2019 monetary penalties amounted to 57% of convictions in the Magistrates’ Court and 3.4% of convictions the Crown Court,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“It is an entirely reasonable expectation that penalties and fines imposed by the courts are effectively enforced to ensure there is a consequence for committing a criminal offence and help prevent re-offending.  When people who do the crime, don’t pay the fine, community confidence in the criminal justice system is damaged,” she said.
Between 1 June 2018 and the end of December 2020 around £3.6 million of unpaid monetary penalties were collected by the FCS from people who failed to pay their fine or penalty within the time set by the court.
“Since the FCS was established in June 2018, its performance has improved every year and the number of people paying their fines following its involvement has increased significantly.  We recognise the FCS has made a good start in reducing the amount of unpaid financial penalties that exist but it needs the right tools to help it do its job and maximise its potential,” said the Chief Inspector.
Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) data obtained as part of the inspection fieldwork showed that on 1 July 2020, there were about 52,600 historic or ‘legacy’ cases of unpaid fines or monetary penalties that pre-dated the establishment of the FCS.
“This backlog of old unpaid fines, which is estimated to be over £13 million and more recent accumulating unpaid fines, won’t go away by itself but will only continue to grow without the resources and legislative power needed to take effective action.  Older debt is usually harder to collect and defendants’ circumstances can change from when a fine is imposed, making effective enforcement action more difficult.
“A new Legacy Fine Unit should be established inside the next nine months, to focus on the collection of these outstanding fines. This unit would engage with the Judiciary around how best to manage the process of bringing these cases back before the courts to obtain the Collection Orders required to recoup the outstanding fines or hold fine default referral hearings,” she said.
“I welcome the Order made in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 29 June to progress the legislative reform required to enable the FCS to work with the Department for Communities and, if it is appropriate, deduct money from Universal Credit benefit payments to pay outstanding fines.
“Inspectors recommend that in support of this change, the NICTS should effectively resource the FCS to deal with the accumulated backlog of cases that exist,” said the Chief Inspector.
The report has highlighted the need for the NICTS to secure additional contact details and key personal information about the identity of any person who has a fine imposed at court.
Ms Durkin continued: “It is common practice for people to provide email addresses and mobile phone numbers when they wish to buy something online or to provide their current contact information to secure utility services, so why can’t these details be obtained by the Court when they are first required to attend?
“Collecting this information would improve communication and reduce the current reliance on posted letters to engage and encourage fine payment and could reduce the cost of issuing a personal summons for a person to return to court when they have defaulted on their fine,” she said.
The Chief Inspector said she welcomed the reduction in the number of fine warrants being issued to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for execution following the introduction of the FCS, but that there were still too many people being committed to prison for short periods of time for failing to pay a fine.
“Supervised Activity Orders were introduced as an alternative to imprisonment for those who didn’t have the means to pay an outstanding fine or fines,” she said.
“However the investment made in establishing them has not been realised and the reasons for this need to be explored and understood by the Department of Justice.  Between 1 June 2018 and 30 November 2020, Supervised Activity Orders represented 0.1% of outcomes from all fine default referral hearings whereas committals to prison stood at 59%,” concluded Ms Durkin.