Examination of Witness (Questions 220
MONDAY 24 JUNE 2002
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
(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
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
(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.
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
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
(Sir Hayden Phillips) I agree.
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
(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
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