18. Many defaulters either cannot pay, or will not
pay. There are a number of methods open to magistrates' courts
to enforce payment of financial penalties, including payment by
instalments, distress warrants to seize assets and making direct
deductions from income or benefit. The ultimate sanction for non-payment
is imprisonment. In 1994, the Department's Internal Assurance
Division concluded that it was unable to offer assurance that
fine enforcement was working properly due to an unsatisfactory
standard of control over enforcement processes. It was not until
1999, however, that the Home Office commissioned a study to examine
the effectiveness of different enforcement strategies, the results
of which are due to be published in 2002. The Department attributed
the delay to lack of resources.
19. Very little information exists at national level
about the characteristics of defaulters. The Department could
not indicate, for example, the proportion of unpaid fines due
from offenders on benefit. Limited research commissioned by the
Home Office in 1997 found that only one in five male defaulters
was employed; and that typically female defaulters were in restricted
financial circumstances, with only one in 10 in some form of employment
and the majority (81%) with dependent children. The Department
acknowledged that better information was needed for policy development
purposes. It had recently commissioned a research project to examine
the profile of defaulters.
20. The National Audit Office found that the enforcement
process often involved many stages and that courts took different
approaches to delegating responsibility to court officials. In
the Department's view, the current regulations governing the delegation
of powers were clear, and it believed that these powers were being
used to their maximum. The Department accepted that greater delegation
was to be encouraged but primary legislation would be needed to
transfer more responsibility to court officials.
21. Some people may put other financial commitments
ahead of their fine for fear of obtaining a county court judgement,
which has a direct impact on their ability to obtain credit. At
present, the enforcement systems for civil and criminal debt are
not handled in the same way, although the Department said that
the county courts faced very similar issues. The Department was
looking at whether, as a result of repeated failure to pay, a
person could be registered with the registry of judgements, which
would have the same effect as a county court judgement by disabling
the person from obtaining credit. It was also considering whether
the enforcement systems for civil and criminal debt ought to be
22. Many penalties remain unpaid because the offender
cannot be traced. The first stage of the enforcement process is
the issue of a summons by the court at which the defaulter is
required to explain why payment has not been made. However, only
a minority of offenders turn up for these hearings. Tracing offenders
can be difficult because some are highly mobile and either deliberately
or inadvertently fail to notify courts of their change of address.
An analysis by the Department of a large proportion of the write-offs
for the year ended 31 March 1998 suggested that 96% were due to
inability to contact or trace defaulters.
23. Under the Access to Justice Act 1999, the Lord
Chancellor can designate public authorities from whom courts can
request information about defaulters including the defaulter's
full name and address, date of birth and national insurance number.
The Department for Work and Pensions was designated in April 2001,
and in the first twelve months of this arrangement £465,000
had been recovered that would not otherwise have been collected.
The new arrangement had paid for itself within seven months, although
the money collected was still small compared to the £58 million
written off in 2001-02. Similar access to the Police National
Computer had recently been agreed by the Department, and agreements
with the Inland Revenue, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing
Agency were being pursued.
24. In some cases courts may overlook information
on defaulters whereabouts held within the local community, including
victims knowledge. In one case known to a member of this Committee,
individuals had informed the court of the whereabouts of a defaulter
but the court was seemingly reluctant to act on the information.
The Department accepted that there might be the greater scope
for magistrates' courts to seek the assistance of local communities
in tracing defaulters.
25. In some instances, the defaulter may be a resident
of another country and may leave the United Kingdom without paying
a fine. A Committee member cited the case of a fine imposed upon
a road haulier which had to be written off. The Department said
that current arrangements enabled the Department for Transport
to urge the defaulter's country of origin to take action to ensure
that traffic penalties were paid. However, a draft Framework Decision
proposed by the United Kingdom, France and Sweden within the European
Union would, if adopted, provide for financial penalties imposed
in one member state to be enforced by other member states. In
the interim, the Government was exploring a system of fixed penalties
or a graduated deposit system, whereby hauliers would pay a "deposit"
as a guarantor of court attendance.
26. A person who fails to pay a court penalty can
be sent to prison, although use of prisons as the ultimate sanction
has declined in recent years partly because of case law and a
concern not to send people to prison unnecessarily. In 2000, 2,476
people were imprisoned for non-payment of fines compared to 22,469
people in 1994. A review of the range of sentencing options currently
available to the courts is needed, particularly where offenders
are unlikely to pay a fine if imposed. The Crime (Sentences) Act
1997 provides additional sentencing options for dealing with fine
defaulters and persistent petty offenders, including community
punishment orders, curfew orders and disqualification from driving.
The Department said that these sentencing powers had been piloted
but not yet brought into force. Some sentence options might not
always be appropriate, for example existing community sentences
had a 30% breach rate. There may also be lessons to learn from
abroad, however, for example experience in Australia and New Zealand.
In July 2002, a Government White Paper, Justice for All,
announced proposals to impose a range of sanctions for fine default,
including registering the fine with the registry of judgements
(which prevents defaulters obtaining credit); and ordering the
clamping of a defaulter's vehicle.