PAC calls for Urgent Reform of Financial Penalties Collection System

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 21 January 2015

Reference: PAC 04/14/15

The Public Accounts Committee is calling for urgent reform of the system for collecting financial penalties in a Report published today.

The Report, entitled Report on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service Trust Statement for the year ended 31 March 2013, found that the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) estimate that £6.5 million in court fines and penalties is unlikely to be recovered. NICTS is the body responsible for collecting financial penalties imposed by the courts, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Driver and Vehicle Agency. 

Michaela Boyle, Chairperson of the PAC said: “The way that financial penalties and fines have been managed is unacceptable. The current system has led to 6,682 paper warrants with a value of approximately £1.1 million going missing and therefore not being collected.

“The Committee was surprised to find that there is currently £19 million in unrecovered financial penalties, with £6.5 million unlikely to ever be recovered. Furthermore, PSNI has also reported one significant case of suspected fraud which is currently in the hands of the PPS.”

Despite the significant levels of outstanding debt, the Department of Justice has failed to coordinate a joined up approach to fine collection and, as a result, current governance arrangements are unacceptable

As well as problems with collecting the fines and penalties, there have been issues with managing the costs associated with the collection process.  Prior to the introduction of Fine Default Hearings in June 2014, the costs associated with managing the fine recovery process included an estimated £3 million per year to PSNI and approximately £1.4 million to the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Michaela Boyle MLA said: “While the Committee recognises that it is inevitable that there will be a cost associated with enforcing and collecting financial penalties, the costs associated with the current system are excessive.

“In these times of great financial stress for the Government and all Departments, it is incumbent upon all Government and non-Governmental agencies to ensure that systems are efficient and provide good value for money. As well, it is crucial that where fines are imposed, they are collected and the monies used for the benefit of everyone here.

“Reform is urgently required and we look forward to the Department of Justice implementing our recommendations in full.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • The Committee found that the root cause of the problems identified in the report is default on fines and believes that any reform must address this issue.
  • The Committee recommends that NICTS should put in place a robust system to identify an individual’s ability to pay before a fine is imposed. This would allow the court to consider options at the outset to prevent fine default, including instalment orders, non-monetary supervised activity orders and other measures, such as deductions from earnings or benefits.
  • The Committee also found that there was an estimated cost of £170 for court time and legal aid fees each time a financial penalties case is presented, however this cost can vary depending on how many hearings are required. This should be addressed to reduce unnecessary costs to NICTS and legal aid.
  • Annual costs in respect of the Northern Ireland Prison Service are based pro rata on the published costs per prisoner place figure.

The current membership of the Public Accounts Committee is:

Ms Michaela Boyle (Chairperson)
Mr John Dallat (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Phil Flanagan
Mr Paul Girvan
Mr Ross Hussey
Mr Daithí McKay
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Seán Rogers

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