Court fines 'undermined' as one in three go unpaid

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The Independent Online

Court fines are being undermined as a form of punishment, Parliament's financial watchdog has warned, after it found that £143mof penalties were not paid last year.

In a damning report to be published today, the National Audit Office will reveal that an additional £74m in fines, victim compensation awards and prosecution costs had to be written off in 2000-01, just under a third of the total imposed. Court officials decided to give up on the money owed because poor record-keeping meant that they could not trace the offenders concerned.

The Tories claimed last night that the "ridiculous state of affairs" meant tens of thousands of offenders escaped justice every year. Community service orders and curfews should be considered as alternatives to fines, they said.

The Government was also singled out for criticism because the NAO concluded that a large part of the problem stemmed from a delayed computer project aimed at improving court fine enforcement.

In a further blow to Tony Blair's emphasis on private finance deals, the watchdog reported that a £200m project between the computer giant ICL and the Lord Chancellor's Department is five years behind schedule.

Fines are the most common form of court punishment, but the NAO's report found that only 63 per cent of the £385m owed in financial penalties imposed by the courts was paid last year, leaving £143m unpaid.

In the same year, £74m was written off, largely because offenders could not be tracked down. A further £77m was cancelled because the penalty had been replaced by a term in prison or successful appeals.

The inquiry found that the process of enforcement of fine payment was "over-complex and time-consuming", often requiring extra court hearings.

Magistrates' courts did not always trigger enforcement action promptly enough and the performance of different parts of the country varied wildly.

Sir John Bourn, the head of the NAO, presented his report to Parliament with recommendations to make fine collection a top priority for courts, offer incentives for prompt payment and improve the accuracy of court records.

Sir John also suggested that the Home Office should look at whether the current range of sentencing options was wide enough to minimise the imposition of uncollectable fines.

"Apart from the cost, the failure to bring in the remainder could undermine the credibility of financial penalties as a form of punishment," Sir John said.

According the NAO report, most offenders fail to turn up to court for fine payment hearings.