No television licence leads to debt woes after court fines add up
Increasing non-payment of penalties handed down by the courts is undermining the stability of the justice system as well as landing people in more trouble
Friday 06 December 2013
The fastest-growing area of the debt problem is not, as many people might expect, payday loans. According to the charity National Debtline, it is the debt owed to magistrates' courts in unpaid fines – and it rose 67 per cent in the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period in 2012.
The issue represents a major problem not just for these individuals but also for the courts overall because, if too many people run away from their debts, the credibility of the justice system is threatened.
Only one thing is certain: the subject will remain a pressing problem in 2014. The basic facts speak for themselves. National Debtline received just over 9,500 calls for help in this area between January and August this year. The proportion of its clients with such debts climbed from 3.8 per cent in January 2012 to 5.5 per cent in January this year, and rose again to 9 per cent in June. Meanwhile, at the Citizens Advice service, there was a 27 per cent increase between July and September this year, compared with the same period in 2012, in queries being raised by the public about the use of bailiffs in relation to magistrates' courts fines.
Looking at one of the areas that lead to such fines – the non-payment of council tax, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) says 40 per cent of its clients have council tax arrears. CAP says there has been a 5 per cent increase in the incidence of this problem since April when many local authorities cut back on the amount of council tax they would subsidise for residents on benefits.
Almost 815,000 fines were given out in magistrates' courts in the year to September 2012. Fines average £175, according to 2011 data. Common reasons are non-payment of a TV licence or council tax, speeding and other motoring offences, and lower-level criminal offences. Fines imposed amounted to £106m in the second quarter of 2013. Fines still waiting to be paid added up to £576m at the end of June this year.
Commenting on the situation, and particularly on the use of bailiffs in some cases of unpaid fines, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, says: "Many people are being chased by bailiffs for TV licence fines, and in some cases are getting into debt with payday loans in order to pay the bailiff. It's important bailiffs recognise when people are struggling and just don't have the money to pay."
One strange aspect about the statistics at the moment, however, is that magistrates are not giving out more fines. Ministry of Justice statistics show them more or less standing still. What seems to be the problem is that they are either being pursued harder, by debt collectors and bailiffs, or that people are finding them harder to handle.
Since law centres are closing down in greater numbers, less free legal advice is available. Legal-aid restrictions and benefit cutbacks also mean that people have fewer resources.
Anyone who gets a fine from a magistrate will be warned in court of the dire consequences of non-payment. Magistrates will often do their best to get the fine paid there and then as this eliminates the possibility of non-payment. After that, there is a series of reminders and warnings – using text messages in particular. But problem debts are outsourced to specialist debt managers and collectors, and these people will send in bailiffs in difficult cases.
Anyone who can avoid having to deal with a bailiff should do so. For a start, the debtor has to pay the bailiff's fees, and this will double the amount owing in the typical case. Someone owing £200 to the magistrates' court could easily end up owing another £300 to the bailiffs for collecting the debt. On top of this, while magistrates' courts offer flexibility on fine payments, bailiffs are at the other end of the spectrum. So, a magistrate will typically offer weekly £5 instalments as a way of paying the fine to the poorest people being sentenced by the court. But, says David May of National Debtline: "It's very difficult to get instalments agreed with a bailiff."
On a policy level, very few people have the full picture on magistrates' courts fines. Asked if she is concerned about fining levels and non-payments, one lay magistrate says: "You don't sit often enough in court to see a pattern." Statistics from HM Courts & Tribunals Service point towards an 80 per cent collection rate of all fines imposed in 2010-11.
However, it seems that the current collection rate in parts of London is much closer to 50 per cent. If only half of fines are being collected, there is a danger that people lose faith, and everyone stops paying.
Most magistrates will also admit to some despair about the way the whole system works. "I imposed a £300 fine for spitting in the street," says Magistrate A, who wants to remain anonymous. "That, to me, is crazy. But my hands were tied." The accused faced a fixed penalty fine of £80 – but he then pleaded not guilty and did not turn up for his hearing. This produced the automatic result that he was guilty and that his fine was doubled to £160. Added to this were the £20 victim surcharge and then another £120 in prosecution costs.
Like many magistrates, Magistrate A is sympathetic to the people before him and gives them the lowest fines possible, payable in instalments, in the many cases which he thinks are appropriate. "The big trick is to get them to pay straight away," he says, wanting to reduce the number of cases where a simple fine doubles and trebles in size as it goes unpaid and the bailiffs are called in.
Until a few years ago, magistrates could take most of the cash that a defendant had on them in court to pay the fine. But magistrates' courts have fewer security staff these days and, without them, it is virtually impossible to order someone to pay immediately.
The situation may well get more difficult in 2014 or 2015. "More must be done to improve fine collection," says a spokesman for the Courts & Tribunals Service.
The Government has regularly been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and others over non-collection. At the moment, it is running a tendering process to outsource the whole of its fine collection system from the issuing of the fine notice to final payment.
There are obvious concerns. "They may come under more pressure to pay," says Magistrate A, referring to defendants.
This may be fair in many cases – but there could also be many cases of hardship. It could be that the managers of the outsourced service try to get the fining procedure to be more realistic in terms of matching fines to the ability to pay. But the contract could be based on a 'payment by results' system, which could encourage a tougher approach.
"It is vital that people are treated fairly and can set up affordable payment arrangements at any point of the process," says National Debtline. "We would like to see organisations bidding for the work ensure they take into consideration the needs of clients, many of whom will be vulnerable. The aim should be to build in an ethos of early intervention."
Case study: Bailiff trouble
National Debtline tells the tale of 'Jim':
Jim is 27, and married with young children. He received a magistrates' court fine for a speeding offence earlier this year.
Having failed to supply adequate income and expenditure details to the court, he was fined £200 – which he could not realistically afford within the 10-day repayment period offered.
Rather than contact the court to explain this, Jim became anxious and unresponsive. He failed to contact the court, and received a notice from it a few weeks later to inform him that the debt had been referred to a bailiff.
When the bailiff attempted to collect the debt, Jim called National Debtline. He was told to fill in the budget sheet detailing his outgoings and income so that he could clearly understand what he could afford to pay.
He was also instructed to contact the court's fines officer and make this offer. Before he did this, the bailiff visited his home and Jim made the same offer to the bailiff – albeit in acceptance that the repayment period would have to be extended because of the bailiff's fees. The bailiff refused the offer and demanded payment in full in order to prevent him from taking goods from Jim's home.
Jim called National Debtline again and was encouraged to stick to his guns with his repayment offer, and therefore not let the bailiff in.
The case is ongoing.
Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk
Buying property overseas? Check out these hotspots
Bargain Hunter: Exclusive discount on a SmartGlider - a self-balancing electric scooter
My Tinder date asked for a refund when I declined a second meet up
10 tips for taking out a personal loan
Number of parents moving to their desired school catchment area is increasing, according to Santander research
- 1 Huawei Mate S and Huawei Watch: new products take on iPhone 6 Plus and Apple Watch
- 2 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 5 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
iJobs Money & Business
£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...
Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...
Day In a Page
The terraces of this two-bedroom penthouse apartment offer panoramic views that stretch over fifty miles from the cliffs of Beachy Head.
In the heart of the coastal village of Mumbles and moments from the pier, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is set over three floors and retains many original features.
In a sandbanks location, moments from the beach, this three-bedroom apartment has a large open-plan living area and a south-west facing balcony.
This four-bedroom home has an annexe accessed from the side of the house, with potential for improvement and conversion subject to the necessary permissions.
In the heart of the hamlet of Wardley, this five-bedroom period home offers countryside views and a stylish interior, with original features and open fireplaces.
Offering countryside views and landscaped gardens, this three-bedroom Grade II-listed lodge has a spacious conservatory and a large cellar that could serve as a workshop.
Set in approximately 1.5 acres, this four-bedroom home comes with a second, detached property that's currently used as an annexe.
In the hamlet of Newchurch, this former parish church is now a four-bedroom home complete with clock tower and eyrie.
Offering scenic views from a large balcony and sun terrace, this four-bedroom home has a wraparound garden and a heated swimming pool.
Offering views across the Humber and East Yorkshire Wolds from a glass panelled balcony, this four-bedroom barn-style home befits a life of leisure.
This four-bedroom home offers versatile accommodation with annexe potential; features include a hot tub, sauna and Norwegian BBQ hut.
Well-located for schools, colleges and the town centre, this contemporary thatched cottage offers flexible living space with six bedrooms.
Built in 1907, this four-bedroom Edwardian period home has been refurbished by the current owners, retaining many original period features.
Surrounded by landscaped gardens, this five-bedroom home offers living space across three floors.
This lovely country home in Burnham Market is currently run as a popular holiday cottage, with five en suite bedrooms and colourful gardens.
This three-bedroom 17th-century former village bakery is just a few miles from the East Sussex coast.
Set on a landscaped plot, this light and airy four-bedroom home comes with a log burner in the lounge, a fitted kitchen and an open-plan ground-floor layout.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Built on a former chapel site, this impressive four-bedroom home boasts balconies, stunning views and contemporary modern living.
This three-bedroom house is situated in a quiet mews and set over three floors. Features include glazed staircases and high ceilings.
A period townhouse set over four floors, this five-bedroom home was built in the 18th Century and retains many original features.
With five bedrooms, this spacious home offers beautiful gardens and modern interiors - set within the popular market town of Bingley.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This first-floor flat comes with two bedrooms, an impressive open-plan reception room and two lovely roof terraces.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Moored at Taggs Island and reached via a pretty garden, this two-bedroom houseboat has a vaulted reception room and skylit garden studio - currently a beauty salon.
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
A contemporary house spread over three storeys, this three-bedroom detached home has large sliding doors that open out to the River Quaggy.
Moored in Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, this houseboat offers two double bedrooms and a teak deck that's ideal for al-fresco dining.
This former village bakery, dating back to the 17th century, is now a three-bedroom detached home just a few miles from the East Sussex coast.
On the picturesque Isle of Man, this four-bedroom character home has a ground-floor shop that's currently run as a newsagents and a flat that would make an ideal holiday let.
In a new collection of flats, this first-floor two-bedroom apartment offers ample entertaining space and a prime view of Furze Green from a private balcony.
This three-bedroom stone-built cottage currently trades as the village store with a restaurant in the annexe and family accommodation on the upper floors.
Previously two semi-detached properties, this five-bedroom home is spread over three floors with a large breakfast kitchen, orangery, office and gym on the second floor.
This five-bedroom home enjoys countryside views over the Blyth estuary to Southwold, offering flexible living space with a ground-floor annexe - ideal for use as a holiday let.
Close to the market town of Eye, this four-bedroom detached home offers a double-height living room which takes the place of the original, 19th-century, chapel nave.
Dating back to the 19th century, this four-bedroom home needs modernising. Spanning three storeys, the red-brick house has a fireplace, a small terrace and a cellar.
Just outside of Cambridge, this single-storey home offers three double bedrooms, a living room with vaulted timber ceiling and ladder steps that lead to a mezzanine study area.
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn.
A former coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, an attached office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Located beside an impressive Victorian viaduct, this four-bedroom home has an open-plan living area that is glazed on two sides, with skylights and high ceilings.
A former furniture workshop, this three-bedroom home has high ceilings and painted brick walls, in a village setting only fifteen miles from the coast.
This five-bedroom stone townhouse features a pine staircase and an Inglenuk fireplace, double doors from the lounge give access to an enclosed courtyard.
This five-bedroom, detached home blends traditional and modern design; the sleek kitchen features a gas hob and oven set within an exposed chimney breast.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B or countryside retreat, subject to change of use permissions.
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom home is situated on a private road, just a short walk from the sandy beaches of Frinton-on-Sea.
Less than five miles from Malmesbury, this four-bedroom cottage comes with equestrian facilities and gardens that extend to approximately three acres.