Courts fail to collect 40 per cent of fines

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The Independent Online

Less than two-thirds of court fines in England and Wales are collected, a report by MPs said yesterday, concluding that the payments had become "almost voluntary".

Less than two-thirds of court fines in England and Wales are collected, a report by MPs said yesterday, concluding that the payments had become "almost voluntary".

The House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee found that £148m was written off by magistrates' courts last year, which was "undermining the effectiveness of the criminal justice system".

The chairman of the committee, Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough, said it was "simply unacceptable that the payment of a fine has become almost a voluntary activity". He added: "Fines are a punishment and should in theory deter offenders, but a haphazard approach to their collection is far from a deterrent and must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

The report blamed the Government for failing to improve the collection of fines, which account for about 70 per cent of all sentences. A series of official reports dating back to 1989 have highlighted weaknesses in the system. People living in poorer neighbourhoods were less likely to pay and courts frequently wrote off penalties issued to people living in temporary or bed-and-breakfast accommodation, the MPs said.

The committee urged the Lord Chancellor's Department to examine alternative penalties to fines, such as confiscating property. It said magistrates' courts had inadequate computer systems to log outstanding fines and some victims were suffering because they only received compensation if an offender paid up. The MPs suggested the introduction of a fund from which victims could be compensated immediately.

In 2001-02, fines of £387m were imposed but a total of only £228m was collected, some of which was owed from previous years. About £58m in fines was written off and £90m was cancelled, either because there was no hope of collecting the money or because the offender successfully appealed. Some offenders convinced the courts they could not afford to pay.

The MPs suggested more accurate information about the ability of offenders to pay fines be collected before a financial penalty was imposed. There was lack of clarity and accountability in the management of fines collection.

The report concluded that fixed penalties or relatively small traffic fines were likely to be paid more quickly than other fines. Persistent offenders, who often accumulated large debts and knew how to "play the system", were also likely to default.

The report may make uncomfortable reading for the Home Office, which has announced plans to impose on-the-spot fines for antisocial behaviour. Ministers are struggling to find ways of punishing people for minor offences without overburdening already overcrowded prisons.

A Home Office report to be published this week is expected to reveal details of the overcrowding crisis currently gripping the Prison Service.