Fine-dodgers face benefits hit in new crackdown

Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: TSPL
Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: TSPL
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Fine dodgers in Scotland are facing a fresh crackdown with courts set to be handed beefed-up powers that will help them deduct money straight from the benefits of defaulters.

Justice secretary Kenny Mac­Askill will today set out plans that will give court officials greater access to information held about offenders by the Department of Work and Pensions.

Last month, it emerged there are £18.5 million outstanding in unpaid fines in Scotland, including £4m in the past six months alone.

Mr MacAskill will meet staff who are responsible for collecting fines and financial penalties on a visit to Edinburgh Sheriff Court today where he will announce new measures to assist them in pursuing fine defaulters.

The current set-up sees sheriffs and judges in Scotland forced to arrange deductions with the DWP if a fine is not paid, but the new process is likely to make the system more efficient. The changes are expected to mean the authorities can collect fines from offenders before their benefits go into their bank accounts.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The collection of fines and penalties is crucial towards ensuring a fair and effective justice, upholding the law and deterrence of crime.

“While collection rates have improved since the Scottish Court Service took on responsibility for this matter and are now consistently high levels, we believe that collection rates could be improved if the Scottish Court Service had direct access to key information held about offenders by the DWP. That is why we have worked with the Scottish Court Service in making representationes to the DWP over this.”

Mr MacAskill will meet enforcement officers who collect fines for the courts on today’s visit and learn how they are using tracing facilities to obtain information on aliases, employment history, bank accounts and credit cards – to make it easier for to identify defaulters and speed up enforcement action.

There were 38,110 warrants issued for non-payment of fines in Scotland last year, equating to 22 per cent of the 175,740 fines imposed. More than 80,000 citations ordering offenders who defaulted on their fines back to court were also issued.

A spokeswoman for the court service in Scotland added: “Having access to DWP information systems would assist our enforcement actions which include the ability to deduct payments from benefits, arrest wages or freeze bank accounts.”

Scottish Conservative Chief Whip John Lamont MSP welcomed the development. But he added: “You have to question why it has taken the SNP so long to look give courts this power.”