Sunday, November 27, 2005
Fine and Dandy
The fine is one of the most commonly-used penalties in the courts, and it has a lot to recommend it. It is simple, and can be adjusted to suit the gravity of the offence and the means of the offender. It is a punishment, but the proceeds benefit society, rather than being a heavy financial drain, as with prisons. It is unlikely to cost anyone his job or break up his family. For most offences the maximum fine before magistrates varies up to £5,000, but for a few involving health and safety and pollution-type offences it can go as high as £20,000.
The problem is that the majority of people who appear before magistrates are poor. In London's booming economy the real money is earned in finance and IT, and the dirtier jobs, some of them very well paid, are usually done by foreigners. There are few jobs for the underclass, whose employability is often fatally damaged by functional illiteracy, social alienation, and the ubiquitous use of drugs to blot out the world's trials. Thus, when I sat in a fines enforcement court the other day, dealing with those who had fallen into arrears, of the twenty or so people who appeared, only one had a job. Courts are limited by law to fining people amounts that they can realistically pay, but for multiple petty offenders fines can soon ratchet up to an impossibly large sum. We have the power to remit fines that, perhaps through change of circumstances, have risen to an unpayable level, and it is usual to 'lodge' or cancel, fines owed by someone who serves a prison sentence, on the commendable principle that on leaving prison the offender should have a fresh start. Another frequent problem is the petty offender who does not turn up to court and is dealt with in his absence - a common feature of fare evasion and TV licensing cases. If the defendant is absent all that the court can do is to impose the standard fine, and this leads to anomalies.
Most cases were dealt with by making an order to deduct £5 per week from benefit which is simple and relatively effective. In a few cases with hopelessly poor and disorganised women who had been fined for TV licence offences we remitted the bulk of the fines. A woman living on benefits in a council house, with five children, no man, and a teenage son who is constantly in trouble, has so much on her plate that we think it right to reduce her fine to a token level.
The enforcement court requires different skills from the criminal court, since the aim is to collect the money, so those of us who have a bit of barrow-boy in our character can do quite well.
For determined evaders (who refuse to pay or are 'culpably negligent') at the end of a long road lies committal to prison. That's an admission of defeat because committal wipes out the fine, and prison is expensive, but if we have to do it, we do.