John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury. Follow John on Twitter.
I recently stepped down from sitting as a magistrate in Westminster, having served for six years. During this time I, and my colleagues on the bench, frequently wondered whether when fines were levied by the court they would ever be fully paid off.
There are currently 1,680,000 outstanding fines, as of March 2012, worth a total of £593m. In 2011-12, £385m was levied, but only £279m was collected, though this included fines from previous years. A full £106m is left unpaid. The enforcement of financial penalties by HM Courts and Tribunals Service cost £54m in 2011-12, about fourteen percent of the value of fines levied – not even those collected – over a year.
Various pieces of legislation over the past few years have provided several additional ways in which fines can currently be paid off by defendants. For example, the value of the fine can be deducted from any benefits received by the defendant or from any earnings in the same way as PAYE, by the order of a court. But for a number of individuals these conventional options are just not possible.
This is not an issue so much of lost monies but more how to deliver justice for society. The public reasonably expect that justice is done – that when the courts give out fines and financial penalties, they will eventually be paid by defendants.
Today I will be proposing a ten-minute rule motion, suggesting that a pilot scheme is set in place to trial unpaid work orders, where fines can be paid off by defendants through unpaid work at a set hourly rate.
A pilot scheme for unpaid work orders was run between September 2004 and March 2009 in a number of Local Justice areas across England and Wales, but was not brought in on a permanent basis at the end of the trial. The Bill I am proposing would provide for another pilot scheme to take place, but with some differences to the first: for example, it would allow charities and local authorities to share the supervisory role, and it would have a focus on issuing clear guidance and eligibility criteria.
Unpaid work orders would be especially useful for defendants when the deduction of a fine from benefits would risk serious implications for the well-being of the defendant or their household, or where the defendants themselves may consent to pay their fine by unpaid work, in order to pay it more quickly or so as not to reduce their benefits if they are not working.
This would give a strong element of compassion to our justice system, where individuals may be poor in monetary terms but be able to give their time in order to pay back their local community. We should facilitate these opportunities when a defendant is unlikely to be able to pay a monetary fine. This would also safeguard fine defaulters from imprisonment if they were genuinely unable to pay.
Unpaid work orders represent a practical, restorative, and compassionate means of paying fines. The public expect justice to be done, and for fines levied by the courts to be paid by the individuals concerned. I will be arguing that it is time for unpaid work orders to be examined again – the tally of unpaid fines is too high, and should not be allowed to continue.