Letter: Inconsistencies of means-related fines

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Sir: I write as a magistrate in response to your article 'Means-

related fines likely to be curbed' (8 March) on the system of fines that was introduced in October under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The belief up to that time had been that a financial penalty could be adjusted downwards to the means of the defendant, but not upwards to penalise the 'better off' person. This was changed by the Act to attempt to equalise the impact of a financial penalty. It did not, however, extend the principle across other forms of sentence.

The inequity of the current system lies in the wide range between the minimum of pounds 4 unit value and the maximum of pounds 100. The 25 times difference in the two figures is far too great, and inevitably leads to extremely high fines for minor offences, and for people who are not necessarily thought of as wealthy. Jane Gummer (chairman of a working party set up by the Magistrates' Association to look at the scheme) is mistaken in suggesting that people are not as wealthy as was first thought. It was clear before the Act was introduced that the limits were too wide, and indeed the figures used in the pilot schemes were far more equitable; or were the details of proposals not adequately considered prior to its introduction?

Each court is expected to define the allowances to set against income with due regard to local conditions, and it is in this area that more flexibility is required to remove the anomalies of the system.

The other principle introduced by the Act, the impact of which has yet to be appreciated by the general public, was that of 'just desserts' for sentencing, in which the defendant is punished for the offence before the court without any regard to the antecedents, unless anything is revealed in them which aggravates the current offence. This principle is again not applied consistently, as we have to pay due regard to previous convictions in endorsable driving and drink-driving offences, and adjust the penalty accordingly. It is misleading, therefore, for your unnamed solicitor to suggest that her clients are given custodial sentences for the second 'no insurance' offence, as the Act would specifically prevent this, and in any case driving without insurance is not an imprisonable offence.

The change in practice of not being able to increase sentences for recidivists is a cause of considerable concern for a good many magistrates and, I suspect, the public as well.

No doubt it will become clear in the near future how John Major expects us to clamp down on 'persistent offenders' without reference to their criminal records but, whatever happens, the Government should take the opportunity to review the current situation and give us guidance on a fairer and more consistent application of the Act.

Yours faithfully,

P. H. ALLSOP

Eccles,

Greater Manchester

10 March

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