Magistrates to seek reform of unit fines: Talks with Clarke could lead to changes in means-related system

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The Independent Online
LEADING magistrates will meet Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, today in an attempt to agree reforms to the much criticised system of means-related fines introduced in the Criminal Justice Act last autumn.

The magistrates' delegation will discuss with Mr Clarke ways of cutting penalties for people earning between pounds 15,000 and pounds 20,000 a year and possibly of increasing fines for those on income support. They will also ask him to review Section 29 of the Act, which limits the extent to which magistrates can take previous offences into account when handing down a sentence.

The delegation will say that they broadly approve of the principles underlying the Act, which is designed to ensure that punishment fits the crime, but insist that it needs modifying.

They are likely to find themselves preaching to the converted - Mr Clarke has given numerous hints that he is ready to alter parts of the Act. He has been told by Tory backbenchers to improve a system which led to a man being asked to pay pounds 1,200 for dropping a crisp packet and a motorist fined pounds 500 for parking on a double yellow line when his car broke down.

Magistrates believe changes to the system of unit fines can be made with relative ease. The fine is worked out by assessing the seriousness of the offence, which is given a value in units, and that figure is then multiplied by the defendant's disposable income.

The JPs will ask Mr Clarke to:

Introduce a new formula for people on middle incomes to ensure that they pay lower fines;

Improve warnings to defendants that unless they give details of their income, they will face maximum penalties. (The man fined pounds 1,200 for dropping rubbish had not filled in the necessary forms; when he did, the penalty was reduced to pounds 48);

Consider raising the minimum fines.

This can be achieved without destroying the principle that fines should vary according to the wealth of the offender, magistrates say.

Section 29 is more difficult. This tells magistrates and judges that in most cases they cannot give a heavier sentence to a criminal with a long record than they would to a first-time offender. Only when previous offences form a pattern can they be taken into account. It was this section that prompted Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, to describe the Act as a 'straightjacket', a criticism which has been echoed by many magistrates.

But magistrates' leaders, including Joyce Rose, chairwoman of the Magistrates' Association, have said that even before the Act it was good practice to sentence defendants for the crime with which they were charged and not for their records.

Many leading magistrates believe that if Mr Clarke is to change this section, he must be careful to avoid going back to the days when offenders were sent to prison for petty crimes.