THE increased use of criminal fines by Scotland’s courts has been criticised after figures showed that more than £18 million of penalties have still to be collected.
Details released by the Scottish Court Service (SCS) show that since 2010-11, arrears of £18.3m have gathered due to offenders’ failure to pay.
The Scottish Conservatives said the real figure was £23.1m because the statistics released yesterday did not include £4.8m accumulated before 2010.
The Tories said the “huge underpayment” of fines came at a time when the Scottish Government is urging sheriffs to use financial penalties instead of custodial sentences.
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “At a time when the Scottish Government seems to prefer fiscal fines above all else, the least it could do is ensure they’re actually paid.
“The public will be appalled to see more than £23m is missing from the Scottish Court Service because criminals aren’t settling fines. Not only is this a blow for the taxpayer, it’s an insult to victims of crime, many of whom will already be annoyed at the soft penalty being handed down by the courts.”
Ms Mitchell said criminals were “breezing into court” knowing that if given a fine, they might never have to pay it.
She added: “The Scottish Government has a duty to pursue these unpaid fines and ensure that the next time these figures are published, significant progress will have been made.”
Scotland’s courts can hand out fines from £200 to £5,000 for less serious offences dealt with by sheriffs or justices of the peace. Since 2008, the responsibility for collecting the fines has lain with the SCS.
The SCS said that as of 11 April, 87 per cent of the value of sheriff court fines imposed over the period April 2010 to March 2013 had either been paid or were “on track” to be paid through instalments – a one percentage point rise for the same period compared with the last update in January.
A spokesman for the SCS said: “Consistently strong collection rates are the clearest indicator that our fines enforcement and sanctions are working well.
“Naturally, it takes time to collect fines as they can be paid by instalments over the course of two or more years and it is only when defaulters fail to make payment that enforcement measures are used. But that certainly does not mean defaulters can escape payment.
“Since the Scottish Court Service took responsibility for the enforcement of fines collection, rates have steadily improved and remain strong.”
Earlier this month, Freedom of Information requests by the Tories discovered £1.47m of unpaid fines imposed before January 2008, a further £1.4m from 2008-9 and £1.9m from 2009-10.
Consideration is given to “archiving” fines when enforcement managers consider there is little prospect of recovery, the SCS said.
This can include circumstances where the person is bankrupt, or cannot be traced, or where a fine is more than three years old and it has not been possible to carry out enforcement activity on the fine for a year.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Since the Scottish Court Service took over responsibility in 2008, overall fines collection rates have improved considerably and are now at consistently high levels.
“Their robust approach to pursuing all outstanding fines gives a clear message to defaulters that there is no place to hide.”