Belfast Telegraph

£6.5m in fines for speeding and illegal parking just written off

By Adrian Rutherford

More than £6 million in unpaid fines has been written off after the Courts Service admitted the money is unlikely to be recovered.

Around £19m worth of penalties is outstanding, a report by the Assembly's public spending watchdog found. The fines were issued for offences such as speeding and illegal parking.

More than 6,000 paper warrants, worth around £1.1m, have simply vanished and can't be collected.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) described the scale of fine-dodging as "alarming".

It said the credibility of issuing fines as punishment was reliant on enforcing and collecting payment.

Today's report also found:

  • A £50,000 fraud is being investigated involving fines which were collected but not passed on to the Courts Service.
  • Each year £3m worth of police time is spent enforcing fines.
  • Around £14m in fines have been outstanding for more than a year.

The issue of unpaid fines was first raised in a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

The matter was then investigated by the PAC, and today's report contains 20 recommendations.

Both reports examined the Courts Service's 2012/13 accounts, which revealed unrecovered financial penalties of £19m. The Courts Service estimated £6.5m will not be recovered.

Today's report says governance arrangements are unacceptable.

"This has contributed to a number of failings including 6,682 paper warrants with a value of £1.1m have gone missing and there is a significant suspected fraud," it said.

The alleged fraud is believed to total £52,789 and was identified in March 2012.

A "reconciliation process" identified outstanding warrants which had been recorded as paid to the PSNI, but the payment had not been received by the Courts Service. The committee was told a lack of basic controls had left the PSNI and Courts Service vulnerable to the risk of potential fraud.

PAC chair Michaela Boyle 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 £1.1m going missing and therefore not being collected.

"The committee was surprised to find that there is currently £19m in unrecovered financial penalties, with £6.5m unlikely to ever be recovered."

There have also been issues with managing the costs of the collection process.

Prior to the introduction of fine default hearings last June, the costs associated with managing the fine recovery process included an estimated £3m per year to the PSNI and approximately £1.4m to the Prison Service.

The Courts Service also takes a £170 hit in terms of court time and legal aid fees each time a financial penalty case is presented.

The PAC said the costs associated with the current system were excessive, and said reform was urgently required.

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."

Background

Financial penalties can be imposed by the courts, PSNI and the Driver and Vehicle Agency for a wide range of reasons. The Audit Office previously reported on the extent of unpaid financial penalties, raising concerns about fine collection and enforcement measures and the system for dealing with fine defaulters.

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