Benefits and cars will be seized from fine defaulters in crackdown by David Ford
Benefits, cash and even cars are to be seized from Northern Ireland's fine defaulters in a major crackdown on those who fail to pay, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Prison terms for the worst offenders are also to be increased, with no early remission awarded to those jailed for non-payment of fines.
The tough new legislation is to be introduced to the Assembly by Justice Minister David Ford later this year in a bid to reduce the multi-million pounds owed in unpaid court fines and penalties.
Unpaid fines totalling £19m are owed to the Stormont government, with £6.5m unlikely to be recovered.
The Justice Minister's Fines and Enforcement Bill will provide courts with additional sentencing, collection and enforcement options.
In response to a written question about the problem of unpaid fines, Mr Ford revealed that the Bill will "contain proposals both to prevent default in the first instance and to strengthen the court's enforcement options." He said: "It will allow for the payment of fines by way of deductions from income or benefits and will permit, in appropriate circumstances, the seizure of vehicles for non-payment and the deduction of money from bank accounts."
In a bid to reduce the 2,000 people who are jailed each year for non-payment of fines, Mr Ford said his new Bill will increase the availability of community-based options in place of custody.
However, he added that for those who do end up in prison for non-payment, the Bill will include the removal of remission from any period spent in custody.
A report earlier this year by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee criticised the Justice Department for its failure "to co-ordinate a joined-up approach to fine collection" and said that "as a result, current governance arrangements are unacceptable".
Justice committee member Stewart Dickson said that the new bill will toughen up and modernise the current law.
"For those who are habitual offenders then it is just right that money or property should be seized to pay off what they owe instead of sending them to prison at a cost to the public," the Alliance MLA said.
Mr Dickson added: "There are also people who are genuinely struggling to pay their fines so deducting some money from their benefits each week is much more preferable than sending them to prison for a few days.
"Fine default is a big problem and this is an appropriate move to deal with it. It is a toughening up of the law but it is also a modernisation of the law. The thought of sending someone to prison for a few days for not paying a fine really isn't the way to go if it can be avoided."
The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service is the body responsible for collecting financial penalties imposed by the courts, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Driver and Vehicle Agency. Each year £3m worth of police time is spent enforcing fines.
Around £14m in fines have been outstanding for more than a year.
More than £19m in unpaid fines is owned to the Stormont government. At least £6.5m of that is unlikely to be recovered. Each year £3m worth of police time is spent enforcing fines.
Around £14m in fines have been outstanding for more than a year. Justice Minister David Ford is to introduce a new Bill to crackdown on fine defaulters.