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Two years after call for action, £20m in court fines still owed

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 04/11/2016

Almost £20m worth of fines and penalties have not been paid in Northern Ireland.

Millions of pounds are owed across the seven court divisions.

New figures highlight how non-payment remains a problem - two years after Stormont's spending watchdog called for an urgent review of the situation.

A total of £19,843,888 is owed across the province.

The figures were released by Justice Minister Claire Sugden after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Lord Morrow, who hit out at a "softly, softly approach" to fine evasion.

The highest total is in the Belfast Court Division, where almost £6.4m is owed.

The figures also show:

  • £2,766,233 owed in the Armagh and South Down area.
  • £2,472,628 owed in the Antrim area.
  • And £2,174,701 owed in the Fermanagh and Tyrone area.

In January 2015 a report by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee found that £19m was owed in court fines and penalties.

MLAs heard that £6.5m was unlikely to be recovered.

The report called for urgent reform of how financial penalties were collected.

Michaela Boyle, the then chair of the PAC, said: "The way financial penalties and fines have been managed is unacceptable."

However, nearly two years on the situation shows no sign of improving.

Lord Morrow said he was staggered by the lack of progress.

"Almost two years ago, the Public Accounts Committee announced there was the extortionate total of £19m in unpaid fines," he added.

"Within the PAC report for the year ended March 2013 the executive summary noted: 'It is vital that the justice system sends out the right message and it is essential therefore that NI Courts and Tribunal Service makes every effort to fully recover financial penalties'.

"Yet we are back with a figure of close to £20m in unpaid fines across the court system. Couple that with the fact the majority of cases in which fines were imposed were legally aided, and recalls to court under fine default proceedings affords a further round of legal aid to be expended for representation to try to persuade defaulters to pay up.

"The public will be rightly outraged at these statistics and the liberally-funded softly, softly approach to have defaulters face up to their responsibilities."

The Department for Justice noted the figure included court fines and penalties which were not due to be paid yet, or were being paid in instalments.

"The department is already bringing forward measures to strengthen enforcement and collection powers through a new Fine Collection and Enforcement Service, which will be operational by March 2017," the department said.

"The FCES will have the power to use additional collection methods such as deductions from State benefits, attachment of earning orders and access to bank accounts."

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