Belfast Telegraph

£19m in fines not recovered

Fines totalling £19 million have not been recovered by law enforcement agencies.

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS), which collects financial penalties imposed by the courts, police and Driver and Vehicle Agency, may never recover around £6.5 million of the outstanding debt, it is claimed.

Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the situation was intolerable.

She said: "The way that financial penalties and fines have been managed is unacceptable."

The figures, contained in a PAC report published today, show that £14 million of the debt has been owed for more than a year.

The value of outstanding warrants stands at £8.2 million - with an estimated £5.1 million (62%) believed to be unrecoverable.

It is also revealed that 6,682 paper warrants with a value of approximately £1.1 million have gone missing and problems with managing costs associated with the collection process were also identified.

The PAC has called for urgent reform, claiming failure to collect fines could undermine public confidence in the justice system.

Ms Boyle added: "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."

Among the PAC's key recommendations is the establishment of 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 report said.

Justice Minister David Ford said it was important the public had confidence that fines were an effective penalty.

Mr Ford said: "I am committed to reforming the system of fine collection and enforcement in Northern Ireland.

"More than half of fines imposed are paid without the need for enforcement action. However, dealing effectively with those who default on payment remains a considerable challenge and cost to the justice system."

The minister said a new fine collection and enforcement service due to be established next year would have enhanced powers including the ability to deduct financial penalties from earnings and benefits.

He added: "The new fine collection and enforcement service will be operational by the end of 2016, subject to having the necessary legislation in place. These additional collection options will improve collection rates prior to default hearings and reduce substantially the number of people being imprisoned for fine default."

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