Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 239)



Mr Rendel

  220. May I start by picking up on some points Gerry Steinberg was making? Do you think it is important, in order to maximise the amount of knowledge that magistrates have about some of the people before them and the conditions locally, that we maintain as many of our local magistrates' courts as we possibly can?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, I think exactly as you put it: as many as we possibly can.

  221. Do you expect that over the next few years you will be able to maintain the number of magistrates' courts we have at present or will the number diminish?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I do not know the answer to that question and you know that I do not know the answer to that question. At the moment the responsibility for deciding on closures rests with magistrates' courts committees and the Lord Chancellor is brought into it if there is an appeal. What we are clear about is that we must make sure that we maintain an access to justice for people across a range of communities. This is often difficult, particularly in rural areas, but we have to keep an eye on that as well as on the issues of efficiency.

  222. Are you saying to me that partly because of the need to maintain local knowledge it is the Department's view that we should if at all possible maintain every one of the magistrates' courts that we now have?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, I am not saying that because that entirely depends on the way things develop over the years ahead. There may be some of them where it is genuinely uneconomical to spend vast sums of money to bring them up to Health and Safety standards. We have always to look to make sure where there is a closure that people can still have reasonably easy access to court.

  223. Would you accept that it is not just a question of access, it is also a question of the magistrates themselves being local people with local knowledge about local matters.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely. We say and we mean it that local justice locally delivered is a great tradition we have and we should aim to sustain that. Part of that is local knowledge about the communities in which people are living. I totally accept that.

  224. Can I turn now to Appendix 1 and ask you the question which you were possibly asked before but I gather it was not very clear what the answer was and I certainly am not clear what the answer is. In Appendix 1 you have the first three columns, payment rate, write-off rate and cancellation rate. I am not clear how they can add up to more than 100%.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) That is because we do not add them up for this purpose. What I explained earlier, and I hope it was understood as this is quite a complicated thing, is what we do is put the payment rate, which is the amount received in any one year, against the amount of fines imposed in any one year as the key indicator. Then you have a write-off rate which are those fines which people have been unable to enforce and then separately the cancellation rate relates to those fines which have to be cancelled under various rules which I did explain. The reason we do not aggregate those is because some of those sums of money will relate to different years. In any one year, if you tried to add them up and ask why it has come to this strange figure, it is because they relate to different years in many cases.

  225. Can we just look at Dyfed Powys at the top where there is 100% payment rate, 12% write-off rate and 18% cancellation rate? Are you saying that in the year concerned, 2000 to 2001, although 12% of the fines applied in that year were written off and 18% of the fines were cancelled, nevertheless the total amount of fines levied in that year was actually paid in that year because the equivalent of 30% of the fines which were imposed in that year were paid from fines which had been levied in previous years?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. I read this table to mean the following and I hope I have it right. In that year, of the fines imposed in that year, the amount received matched that imposition, that is 100%. Separately 12% of fines, which will not necessarily have occurred in that year, were written off and 18%, again which were not necessarily incurred in that year, were cancelled. Therefore I am deliberately not adding them together because that does produce a misleading picture. These are the best statistics we have been able to produce so far.

  226. May I just check with the NAO that that is the NAO's understanding of that table?
  (Mr Gray) That is a correct interpretation.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We agreed on that.
  (Mr Gray) Yes.

  227. For some reason, in Dyfed Powys, an awful lot of work was done on previous years' fines and some 30% of previous years fines were either written off, cancelled or paid during that year.
  (Mr Gray) And in some circumstances, if there are particularly large fines, they can distort a particular year's figures. If large fines are carried forward and that happens to be paid in this year, it can lead to a very high payment rate.

  228. Is this an indication that in some of these places at the top of this particular table, suddenly in 2000-01, they decided they had really fallen rather badly behind and they had better do an awful lot of writing off suddenly or cancelling suddenly, otherwise they were going to get into a worse and worse position?
  (Mr Gray) I do not know the circumstances between these individual cases. Clearly if people wish to place greater priority on this, that may lead to improved performance.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) As I have already indicated to Mr Field, I will look at the ten best courts. If it would be helpful for us to look at some of the examples at the extreme end of this table, both top and bottom, and see what information we can get, if we do not have it already about why this particular pattern emerges and what payments relate to different years, if that would be helpful I will do that.[18]

  229. I should like to come onto the difference between write-offs and cancellations. There are some areas which seem to have more in the write-off column and some more in the cancellation column. It may be sheer chance, but I am interested in paragraphs 1.3 and 1.4 and the definition of what is a write-off and what is a cancellation. Suppose somebody is fined £200, does not pay, investigation then reveals that this person is living in a car and has no job and the decision is then taken that the fine is not going to be paid. Is it then a cancellation or is it a write-off?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) That is a write-off.

  230. Even though, according to paragraph 1.4 ". . . Cancellations can occur . . . because . . . the offenders' circumstances have changed to such an extent that there is no prospect of the penalty being collected".
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) If he had been in the car all the time, that would be a write-off. What that means is that at the time the fine was imposed the circumstances known to the court were such that they could have expected it to have been paid. If in the course then of trying to enforce the fine, the person's position changes so dramatically that it would be made a cancellation, that is what that means.

  231. I thought in most cases the court did not actually know the sort of circumstances people were in. That is one of the problems, is it not? We keep being told that the courts do not have much information about this.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In some cases, possibly a large number of cases, but in other cases they will know.

  232. It surprises me that this is a significant number of cases in which suddenly the circumstances have changed within, what, a fortnight or so? Are they given a fortnight to pay a fine?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) It depends what timetable is set. Ideal is on the day, a fortnight is best, but a lot of people pay by instalments so some time. If someone is not paying, it can sometimes take months or up to a year to try to enforce that payment before a decision is made to write off or if necessary cancel.

  233. May I turn to paragraph 2.28 on page 21, where it is talking about cases which are moved between courts. The paragraph says, "The courts we visited told us that they received little information about cases transferred to them". Why do they not?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) In some cases it will be because of the lack of information about the individual that the originating court has. This should not arise. What should happen is that all the information available about an offender and the situation in one court should be transferred to the other.

  234. Is that what your guidance says?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes; that would be our recommendation.

  235. That is not what I asked. Is that what your guidance says? Have you put out guidance to that effect?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, I think we have. I shall check that, but that is what we believe to be the case.

  236. I should be grateful if you could just check that and let us know whether you do have guidance in place which says that and if you do not have guidance in place which says that I would suggest you should have guidance in place which says that.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I agree.[19]

  237. We are told that there are three levels of punishment in our system: fines, community service, then imprisonment. They are expected to go up in proportion to the seriousness of the offence. It seems to me just looking at it logically that fines are an attempt to punish somebody in a way and therefore to deter future criminality by removing some of their ability to spend money on themselves, the good things of life or whatever. Giving them community service is to some extent an attempt to restrict the amount of free time they might have to enjoy themselves in other ways, particularly getting people who are in jobs to work over the weekend, at times when they might otherwise be watching the World Cup. Imprisonment is to restrict them altogether in terms of their freedom to move around and enjoy themselves. If the point of a fine is to restrict their income and you have somebody who frankly does not have much income, does not have much to spend on the good things in life anyway, does it not in some ways make sense to say in that case their repayment to society should come through some form of community service so the job they do not have, which is not earning the money they can pay a fine from, is then a form of community service instead. Is that logical?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) That is logical and that could well become a proposal for legislation. That is one of the things we are looking at so that we have a greater range of penalties which fit more clearly the position in which individuals are found. I agree with you that there is no point piling more and more fines onto someone who is clearly not going to be able to pay.

  238. Is there some sense in giving the magistrates power if they do not have it at present to ask when they impose a fine whether they are going to be able to pay it, whether they are going to be able to pay on the spot, if not should they be going for an attachment of earnings or a deduction from benefits straightaway?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes, that would be fine, if they know the precise position of the person, if the person is willing to be dealt with in that way, because they would have to agree to that. There is a whole range of ways in which someone could pay their fine and we are trying to increase that range to make it easier for people to do so.

  239. When magistrates are imposing a fine do they ask the person concerned how they expect to pay the fine?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think they often do. A lot of people are sentenced in their absence because they have not appeared in court and therefore the fine is imposed without precise knowledge. One of the clear things which should be done, which comes through from all the research and the work of the NAO, is that the first point is a key moment in the whole system and if we can get that better than it is now, in terms of the information about the offender's means, the amount of time being given to paying clear about it, where they live and how they are best able to pay, then a lot of the troubles further down the line will be removed.

18   Ev 29-31 Back

19   Ev 32 Back

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