Letter: Jailed for fine and debt default

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Sir: I must take issue with Heather Mills' comment (8 May) that magistrates are "sending thousands of people to prison - often illegally" for fine default.

Over an 18 month period during which the courts had to imprison some 30,000 people for wilfully refusing or culpably neglecting to pay a penalty imposed for offending behaviour, the National Association of Probation Officers have unearthed 38 cases where they believe that magistrates carried out the time-consuming and laborious fine enforcement process unsatisfactorily. While this may be regrettable, it hardly constitutes a national scandal nor does it justify the implication of your article.

Magistrates impose about one million fines a year and the general public expect those punishments to be enforced. We all regret that some offenders do not pay their fines and that despite all other attempts to collect the money, they ultimately have to be imprisoned for default.

The Magistrates' Association is working with the Lord Chancellor's Department to explore alternative means of punishment for fine defaulters including the use of community penalties and the Scottish model of Supervision Attendance Orders. However it may be that imprisonment will always be needed as a final sanction.

Rosemary Thomson

Chairman, Magistrates' Association

London W1