Select Committee on Public Accounts Sixty-Eighth Report


The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:



1. Financial penalties are the most common punishment imposed on offenders by Crown and magistrate's courts and account for 70% of all sentences. Such penalties include compensation for victims, confiscation orders, costs to prosecutors and fines. Magistrates' courts are responsible for enforcing the collection of all financial penalties imposed by the criminal justice system.

2. In 2001-02, financial penalties imposed totalled £387 million and collections amounted to £228 million, some of which related to impositions made in previous years. In the same year, penalties totalling £58 million were written off, largely because the offender could not be traced, and a further £90 million was cancelled because, for example, the defendant had successfully appealed against the imposition or because the offender's circumstances had changed to such an extent that there was no prospect of the penalty being collected. These figures suggest therefore that around 59% of impositions are collected.[1]

3. Responsibility for collecting penalties, and for enforcing payment when the offender fails to pay by the due date, lies with 42 local magistrates' courts committees. Each committee comprises up to 12 members, primarily unpaid lay magistrates appointed by their peers. The committees are each supported by a Justice's Chief Executive who is responsible for the administration of the courts in their area. The Lord Chancellor's Department (the Department) has no direct control over local committees but it can give directions to committees to meet specified standards of performance and issue guidance, including guidance on the enforcement of financial penalties.

4. On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General,[2] we took evidence from the Department. We draw the following main conclusions from our examination:

  • Fines account for some 70% of all sentences imposed by courts, and yet only some 60% of fines are paid. Payment of fines appears to be almost voluntary over much of the country, undermining the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

  • There is a lack of clarity and accountability in the responsibilities for managing the collection and enforcement of financial penalties. The Department has no direct control over magistrates' courts' committees in respect of their collection activities. Supporting management information systems are inadequate, being unable for example to provide basic data to match cash collected against fines imposed for a particular financial year. And magistrates may have insufficient information on existing outstanding fines when sentencing an offender.

  • Since 1989 successive official reports have highlighted weaknesses in the systems for collecting financial penalties but the Department has not given them sufficient priority. The Department should now explore options to improve performance significantly by: looking at the scope to centralise some collection procedures regionally or nationally; implementing management information systems which facilitate proper debt management, and assist magistrates when sentencing; establishing centres of excellence to promote good practice; delegating more enforcement responsibilities to administrative staff where appropriate; reviewing the scope to bring together the separate arrangements for enforcing criminal and civil penalties; reviewing the scope for incentives or penalties to encourage the prompt payment of fines; and widening the sentencing options available to courts when dealing with defaulters, for example sequestrating assets such as cars, or limiting a defaulters' ability to obtain credit by registering unpaid fines with the registry of judgement.

  • Victims awarded compensation receive their award only when the offender pays the courts. Payment can therefore be delayed by months or years, or may never happen if the offender disappears. Such a process does little to restore victims' faith in the criminal justice system. The Department, together with the Home Office, should explore whether other options exist, for example, the introduction of a fund from which victims could be compensated immediately, and which would be reimbursed by the offender.

5. Our further conclusions and recommendations are:

On the Department's oversight of the performance of magistrates' courts committees:

  (i)  The Department should investigate the reasons for poor collection performance by individual magistrates' court committees, and review the committees' plans to remedy any shortcomings. Good practice identified from committees performing well should be disseminated more widely.

  (ii)  The Department should review the current range of performance measures for magistrates' courts committees collection activities, for example to include data on the speed with which fines are paid. Current measures, which include payment, cancellation and write off rates should be underpinned by a clear and consistent approach to their calculation across committees, for example accounting separately for criminal penalties and civil impositions.

  (iii)  Information technology systems currently used by magistrates' courts committee are not capable of fully supporting the enforcement process, and the introduction of a new national system has been delayed. We plan to examine separately the circumstances surrounding the development and delivery of the new national system on the basis of a further report from the Comptroller and Auditor General.

On encouraging the prompt payment of financial penalties:

  (iv)  Magistrates' courts committees should provide regular feedback to magistrates on the impact of their sentencing and enforcement decisions.

  (v)  The Department should assist judges and magistrates in keeping up-to-date on the latest best practice in imposing and enforcing financial penalties by providing regular guidance and training.

  (vi)  The Department and magistrates' courts committees should review the current arrangements for obtaining information on an offender's means to improve the quality and reliability of information available to the courts before sentence is passed.

On pursuing unpaid penalties:

  (vii)  The Department should disseminate the results of the study commissioned by the Home Office into the effectiveness of different enforcement techniques to all magistrates and magistrates' court staff.

  (viii)  The Department appeared to have little information on the characteristics of defaulters, leaving it poorly placed to develop effective policies on enforcement. It should therefore give high priority to reviewing the outcome of its recently commissioned study of defaulters, and the implications for financial penalties as an effective punishment.

  (ix)  To assist in tracing defaulters quickly, the Department should reach agreement with other government agencies, including the Inland Revenue, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, to allow courts to request information such as defaulters' addresses.

  (x)  Magistrates' courts committees should be encouraged, where appropriate, to use all sources of potential information on the whereabouts of defaulters, including knowledge from within local communities.


6. Successive official reports have highlighted weaknesses in the systems for collecting financial penalties. In 1989, an efficiency scrutiny identified lengthy and complex procedures and unclear responsibilities. In 1994, a review by the Internal Assurance Division of the Lord Chancellor's Department concluded that the standard of control at local level was unsatisfactory. A review by the Magistrates' Courts Service Inspectorate in 1996 identified similar weaknesses.[3]

7. Whilst the Department has no direct control over magistrates' courts, the Lord Chancellor can direct magistrates' courts' committees to meet specified standards of performance. A working group established by the Department issued two sets of guidance on enforcement issues in 1996 and 1997. However, payment rates at national level have remained static for some time and penalties collected in 2001-02 represented 59% of total impositions in England and Wales, unchanged from the previous year. Significant variations in payment rates exist at local level. In 2001-02, payment rates varied between 34% in Merseyside to 89% in Dorset (Figure 1 and Annex B).[4]

Figure 1: Comparison of 2001-02 payment rates with 2002-03 target

Note: The payment rate is calculated as the money collected during the year, divided by the penalties imposed during the year net of penalties transferred to or from other magistrates' courts committees.

Source: Lord Chancellor's Department, Annual Report on National Performance Indicators 2001-02

8. A range of factors can influence payment rates at local level, including:

  • Differences in the characteristics of defaulters. Home Office research suggests that offenders from the poorest neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to pay their financial penalties than those from affluent areas;

  • Differences in the type of offences for which fines are imposed in the first place. Fixed penalties or relatively small traffic fines, for example, are likely to be paid more quickly than other fines;

  • The ease with which offenders can be traced. It can be more difficult to trace offenders in areas with a high proportion of temporary or bed and breakfast accommodation; and

  • The proportion of persistent offenders, who accumulate large debts, and who often know how to play the system.[5]

9. The Department accepted that more could have been done to improve payment performance and that guidance on good practice had not been sufficiently effective. In April 2001, to speed up enforcement, the Department had transferred responsibility for executing warrants for the arrest of defaulters from the police to magistrates' courts' committees. An additional £10 million had also been made available for 2002-03 to help magistrates' courts strengthen procedures. A series of conferences for enforcement staff had been held in early 2001 and 2002 to discuss good practice, for example on tracing defaulters and placing information before the courts.[6]

10. The Department calculates the payment rate for fines as the amount of money collected in a year as a proportion of financial penalties imposed in that year. Money collected can, however, relate to penalties imposed in earlier years. The Departments measure does not therefore match penalties collected in a year with impositions made in that year. A magistrates' courts committee's reported collection performance can therefore be distorted by, for example, receipt of a large fine imposed in an earlier year. The Department said that computer systems at local level could not currently extract information to report the true fine collection rate for a year.[7]

11. Assessment of local performance should take account of the level of write-offs and cancellations. In 2001-02, penalties totalling £57.9 million were written-off because they could not be enforced, and penalties of £90.4 million were cancelled. Large variations in write-offs and cancellation rates exist across the country (Annex B). Cancellations occur because, for example, the defendant may successfully appeal against the imposition; because the penalty has been satisfied by a term of imprisonment; or because the offender's circumstances have changed to such an extent that there is no prospect of the fine being paid. A continuously high write-off rate at local level could indicate poor enforcement. Similarly, high cancellation rates could potentially undermine the court's initial intentions. There is also a risk that areas cancel impositions rather than write them off to mask weaknesses in their enforcement processes. The Department considered, however, that there was no correlation between write-offs and cancellations and that cancellations were a judicial decision.[8]

12. Most magistrates' courts committees use one of three different computer systems to maintain and generate data on the collection of financial penalties. The Department acknowledged that these IT systems were not capable of providing the support needed by an efficient fines enforcement system. A contract to deliver a new national computer system for magistrates' courts committees was signed by the Department in 1998. The new system, known as Libra, had been expected to provide infrastructure and core services to all committees by the end of 2003, but had been delayed and completion was not expected now until late 2004. In the meantime, the Department expected magistrates' courts committees to focus on improving performance by other means supported by the additional £10 million made available to them in 2002-03 (paragraph 9). Some committees, for example, were hiring extra civilian enforcement officers, and one was buying a stand-alone computer to help manage the execution of warrants (Figure 3).[9] At present, magistrates' courts committees do not pool their resources when carrying out enforcement activities. The Department saw some merit in setting up centres of excellence to develop best enforcement practice.[10]

Figure 2: How the additional £10 million for enforcement is being applied in 2002-03

Note: Other additional costs includes some £81,000 for advertising and recruitment costs

Source: Lord Chancellor's Department, Ev 33-34

13. In July 2002, the Government announced plans to integrate the management of the courts within a single courts agency to replace existing magistrates' courts committees and the Court Service.[11]


14. The accuracy of information about the defendant, available to the Court at the time at which a financial penalty is imposed, is key to the effectiveness of this form of punishment. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 provides for magistrates' courts to take into account offenders' means when imposing fines but the information depends entirely on the court's enquiries of that person. Many people, however, are sentenced in their absence, and a penalty may be imposed without precise information on their means. None of the courts visited by the National Audit Office had systematic arrangements in place for obtaining information on defendants' means or for verifying any information obtained. No statutory requirement for defendants to provide this information exists currently. Further, magistrates were not always aware of outstanding unpaid penalties when passing sentence. The Department suggested that local courts found obtaining information on defendants a bureaucratic process, but accepted that the bureaucracy involved in chasing the two thirds of financial penalties not paid on time was probably greater.[12]

15. At courts visited by the National Audit Office the proportion of financial penalties paid on the day of imposition varied between 1.8 and 4.3%. Currently no financial incentives exist to encourage the early payment of financial penalties and late payment does not attract interest or any other additional financial penalty. Local authorities are, however, able to apply additional penalties for late payment of parking fines. The Department said that the introduction of incentives or sanctions for fines more generally would require changes to legislation. Such arrangements should be considered, provided they did not unfairly penalise those who were genuinely in financial difficulty.[13]

16. Victims awarded compensation have to wait until the monies are paid to the court by the offender. In some cases, payment can take many years. Improved collection procedures would help victims receive compensation more quickly, but the Department believed that radical change was unlikely without changes to the system. One suggestion put to the Department in recent years was that of a fund, paid for by the taxpayer, which would pay compensation out to victims immediately, but which would be refunded by offenders.[14]

17. None of the courts visited by the National Audit Office provided regular feedback to magistrates about the consequences of their sentencing practice in terms of the collection of financial penalties. The Department accepted that further action could be taken to ensure that magistrates received better training, guidance and information about sentencing patterns.[15]


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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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 handled together.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

1   Lord Chancellor's Department, Annual Report on National Performance Indicators 2001-02 Back

2   C&AG's Report: Collection of fines and other financial penalties in the criminal justice system (HC 672, Session 2001-02) Back

3   C&AG's Report, para 1.7, Appendix 2 Back

4   Q 9 Back

5   Ev 30-31 Back

6   Qq 1-2, 9 Back

7   C&AG's Report, para 2.35 Back

8   Qq 20-21 Back

9   Qq 45, 48, 50-52, 121-122, 128  Back

10   Q 148; C&AG's Report, para 20 Back

11   Government White Paper, Justice for All, Cm 5563 Back

12   Qq 177, 239, 242-243 Back

13   Qq 31-32; C&AG's Report, para 2.2  Back

14   Q 3 Back

15   Q 119; C&AG's Report, para 2.10 Back

16   Qq 1, 167 Back

17   Qq 73, 79, 83, 109; C&AG's Report, para 1.6 Back

18   Qq; C&AG's Report, para 2.27 Back

19   Qq 80-81 Back

20   C&AG's Report, para 2.17 Back

21   Q 151 Back

22   Qq 149,151, 174 Back

23   Q 29; Ev 27 Back

24   Qq 8, 102, 138 Back

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Prepared 27 November 2002