Be aggressive over enforcing fines, Straw tells magistrates

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The Independent Online

Justice Secretary Jack Straw today urged magistrates to be "more aggressive" about enforcing the payment of fines.

He called on JPs in England and Wales to follow the example of courts in Surrey and Sussex which demand that offenders pay at least half of their fine before leaving the building after they are convicted.

Mr Straw also urged magistrates to avoid the time and expense of crown court trials by sending fewer minor cases to be heard by a judge and jury.

A total of £545 million in unpaid fines was outstanding in England and Wales at the end of the last financial year, according to Ministry of Justice figures. The national collection rate for fines across the justice system was 85% last year.

Speaking to the Magistrates Association in Birmingham today, Mr Straw said that court guidelines make clear fines should be paid on the day of conviction or soon afterwards. If defendants are in court, full or part payment should be made on the day.

But he added: "We need to improve the rate of early payment and compliance for the cases disposed of with a fine...

"In Surrey and Sussex, the bench demands payment forthwith from all sentenced in person and the court takes receipt of 50 per cent there and then. But my own discussions with magistrates suggest that this is not the case in many courts at present.

"We need to be more aggressive about this, to maintain confidence in the justice system and because, if a fine is not paid on the day of sentencing, costs are incurred in seeking payment.

"The longer a fine goes unpaid, the greater the risk of default. And we are left with the bureaucratic absurdity of the cost of collecting a fine being higher than the fine itself."

Magistrates deal with the vast majority of trivial offences which come before the courts. But they also have discretion on a set of relatively minor charges like theft and handling stolen goods - known as "either way" offences - on whether to try the case themselves or send it to the crown court.

Mr Straw quoted Crown Prosecution Service figures which suggest that JPs are sending about 6,000 more either-way cases to the crown courts annually than three or four years ago.

Of the 59,000 defendants facing crown courts in 2007, around 20,000 "could on the face of it been dealt with by magistrates", he said.

Some 80 per cent of fines for theft handed out by crown courts in 2006 were for £200 or less, while 59% were below £50, said the Justice Secretary, adding: "The levels of fines suggest that some could have been dealt with just as effectively by magistrates."

Mr Straw acknowledged that magistrates had to take a range of factors into account when deciding how to deal with each individual case.

But he suggested it was often better for victims, witnesses, defendants and public confidence for magistrates to hear the case themselves.

"I believe there is a strong case for magistrates being more confident in retaining jurisdiction," said Mr Straw. "I... want to encourage you to use the full extent of your powers in either way cases, where appropriate, rather than referring them to the crown court."