Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another Fine Mess

John, a fellow magistrate, has emailed me as follows:-

"I don't know if you have sat in a DVLA court since the new sentencing guidelines came into force but I did yesterday & I was pretty upset by how the fines have rocketed.
It was my first such session for quite a while so I'm going from memory but, as I remember them, the starting points for fines when we had no information regarding the means of the offender (which with these cases seems to be the rule rather than the exception) was:- 1 month's arrears £40
2 - 3 months' arrears £60
4 - 6 months' arrears £75
7 - 12 months' arrears £100
the equivalent figures using the new method for calculating fines based on the statutory disposable income of £350 are:-
1 - 3 months' arrears £175
4 - 6 months' arrears £435
6 - 12 months' arrears £875.
I'm pretty tough on motoring offences as I'm not a driver & have very little sympathy for offenders who fall into the "Mr. Toad" pigeon hole but to me these figures seem completely disproportionate. After all, the £175 figure could be charged even if as little as £10 tax was owing. Somebody is being screwed."

We don't do DVLA cases at my court but John's point about the new guideline fine levels is a good one. I have not seen any figures, but I imagine that the average fine has gone up a great deal since August. The consequences will not be fully apparent until the unpaid fines summonses start to be sent out in the New Year. Many offenders, especially those who commit low-level offences such as TV licence or car tax ones are not just poor but disorganised. The summons arrives, and is left on one side. The court then deals with the case in their absence, and deems their weekly income to be £350, as per the book. The fines notice is also lost or disregarded, and then it's for a fines court to sort out. The Chief Magistrate has often said that the guidelines are just that, rather than tramlines. I shall continue to use my judgment, in conjunction with my colleagues, and to impose fines that are reasonable and realistic in all the circumstances. And if we have to give our reasons for departing from the book, then I shall say that it is in the interests of justice - that's why I became a magistrate, after all.

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