Means-related fines likely to be curbed

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The Independent Online
THE NEW system of means-related fines is likely to be reformed after criticism from magistrates and their clerks that it is unfair to people on middle-incomes.

Sources close to the Home Office say that Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, will probably introduce changes to curb some of the highest fines, while possibly increasing the lowest penalties at the same time.

The pressure for reform grew last week after a self-employed roofer was fined pounds 500 for parking his overheated car on yellow lines while he went to fetch water for it. Jonathan Brickwood, 23, filled in a form at Portsmouth magistrates' court saying that he had disposable income of pounds 100, the highest amount possible, so the magistrates were obliged to levy the maximum penalty.

Under the new system, an offence is assessed in units. For instance, Mr Brickwood's was worth five units; shoplifting can be assessed at up to 50 units. That figure is multiplied by the offender's weekly disposable income, with the minimum set at pounds 4 a week and the maximum at pounds 100 a week. Thus, if Mr Brickwood had been on income support, his fine would have been pounds 20.

There is a widespread belief among lawyers, magistrates and the clerks that in principle the new system is welcome. Before means- related fines were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act last October, the same penalties had a very different effect on offenders, depending on how much money they had.

But critics of the new scheme say the minimum fines are too small to be taken seriously by offenders and that people on middle-incomes are being fined the maximum amounts, which they cannot afford.

Justices' clerks say that when assessing disposable income, people earning pounds 15,000 to pounds 20,000 can fall into the top bracket, thereby receiving fines of up to pounds 1,000 for minor offences. Jane Gummer, chairman of a working party set up by the Magistrates' Association to look at the scheme, said: 'People are getting to pounds 100 per unit far too quickly. When the system was invented, they seemed to think that people would be a lot wealthier than they are.'

There had been a failure to appreciate that people's expenditure, such as hire-purchase repayments on cars and washing machines, rose along with income.

Under pilot schemes, both disposable incomes and the maximum fines were assessed at lower levels. Justices' clerks say the increase in both on the day that the new Act came into force has led to many of the problems.

There has also been concern at the lowest fines. One solicitor, who asked not to be named, said some of her clients were laughing at the courts. 'It's cheaper for them to drive without insurance and pay the fines than to get insurance. The result is that when they get caught again, they get sent to prison,' she said.

She added that magistrates' courts only rarely used their power to demand proof, such as a wages slip, of a defendant's income.

A source close to the Home Office said these criticisms had been taken on board.

'I think it is highly likely that (Kenneth Clarke) will do something.' A spokesman for the Home Office said it was 'listening carefully' and would act if it became convinced that the criticisms were justified. But he emphasised that the system had been in operation for only five months.

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