Belfast Telegraph

Justice system left £14m out of pocket by criminals who didn't pay their fines

By Adrian Rutherford

Over £14m in fines handed out by Northern Ireland's courts have not been paid.

In the last year alone criminals dodged 20,000 penalties worth £5.6m – an average of 55 a day.

Around £730,000 in fines dating back to 2009 remain outstanding – five years after they were issued.

It has prompted claims that some offenders are being allowed to escape justice.

DUP MLA Lord Morrow said the justice system was failing to deliver.

"If someone goes to court, gets fined and then doesn't bother paying it – what sort of justice is that?" he said.

Some 45,953 fines totalling £14,232,849 issued by Crown and Magistrates Courts across Northern Ireland between 2009 and 2013 remain unpaid.

Around a third – £5,635,640 – were issued in 2013, but others date back much further. Indeed, 3,173 fines worth a combined £730,192 issued five years ago remain unpaid.

The figures were released by Justice Minister David Ford following an Assembly question by Lord Morrow.

In previous years offenders may have served short prison sentences if they did not pay their fines.

However, a recent legal ruling stated that defendants should have a default hearing before the court decides how to deal with an unpaid fine.

Mr Ford said he intended to bring forward legislation to establish a new fine collection and enforcement service to increase the range of collection and enforcement options.

However, Lord Morrow, who branded the extent of unpaid fines as "staggering", said it had come far too late.

"These figures are literally staggering – it is unbelievable that it has got to this stage, and the minister needs to explain what is going on," he added.

"This cannot be acceptable and I intend to pursue it to ascertain just how this whole issue has got so out of control."

In a separate question, investigating the issue in his Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency, Lord Morrow discovered that 1,256 unpaid fines at Dungannon Magistrates Court relate to defendants who received legal aid.

"Some offenders are getting legal aid to go to court as well, then don't bother to pay their fine. What is it all about?" he added. "The whole justice system needs a massive shake-up."

The figures released by Mr Ford's department reveal the Belfast court division has the highest number of unpaid fines, with £3.1m outstanding from the Magistrates Court and a further £3m relating to the Crown Court.

In the Fermanagh and Tyrone court division, £1.1m in Magistrates Courts fines are unpaid with another £660,000 outstanding from Crown Courts.

In his reply, Mr Ford said: "A divisional court judgment held that defendants should have a default hearing before the court makes whatever order it considers appropriate to deal with an unpaid fine.

"On February 17, 2014, Magistrates Courts rules were created to give effect to the new arrangements and the resources required to implement these are currently being considered.

"In the meantime, the judiciary are reviewing all outstanding fine default warrants."

Mr Ford said the Courts Service continues to operate a fine collection service to secure fine payment without further court or enforcement action.

"It is my intention to bring forward legislation during the current Assembly mandate to establish a new fine collection and enforcement service which will increase the range of collection and enforcement options," he added.

Belfast Telegraph


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