Friday, September 22, 2006

Fine Course

Sarah Pine, in a comment on the previous post, asks about fine enforcement. A few years ago, the courts' performance was abysmal, and in some places, especially those with a high turnover of population, less than half of the outstanding cash was ever collected. That was not really surprising. To the typical offender, the arrival of a franked brown envelope notifying a fine (even if it got to him, and even if he could read it) had little effect on his consciousness. I remember saying to my Justices' Clerk some years ago that any private-sector finance director who turned in a performance like that would have his P45 by Friday, a remark that was received coolly.
These days a lot more effort is put into collection, and every court has its fines officer who has considerable power to collect outstanding cash, including bailiffs, clamping and seizure of cars, addition to the commercial bad debt registers, attachment of earnings and deduction from benefit. Instead of waiting for the offender to get round to paying up the staff may telephone to press for payment (during soaps and big football matches is a good time to find them at home).
If that fails, there is a process that starts with a summons to explain to an enforcement court why the debt is unpaid. If that results in a no-show then an arrest warrant is usually issued. At the end of a long road, and after a court has made a finding of either wilful refusal or culpable neglect to pay then an immediate or suspended prison sentence can be imposed. Decisions of higher courts have placed a number of hurdles that a bench must leap before this final step. I have said before that prison is really an admission of defeat, because it costs money, and wipes out the fine too.

Nowadays collection rates are usually well over 80% and climbing. Still not good enough, but getting there.

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