Nearly £5m of unpaid court fines hidden from statistics

Margaret Mitchell: There is a clear issue of transparency
Margaret Mitchell: There is a clear issue of transparency
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Nearly £5 million in unpaid court fines is being hidden from official statistics, it emerged yesterday.

Latest published figures state the Scottish Court Service (SCS) is £16.9m in arrears from criminals who have failed to settle their fines.

The Conservative Party has now raised concerns over the number of court fines and penalties which remain unpaid.

Freedom of Information requests by the party revealed there are £4.8m worth of outstanding fines which are not included in statistics published by the SCS because they date back further than three years.

Data released by the SCS show that for the period 2010-11 to 2012-13, the value of fines which are in arrears is £16.9m.

However, requests from the Tories revealed that there are also £1.47m worth of unpaid fines imposed before January 2008, when the SCS began collecting and publishing the information, and that a further £1.4m remains unpaid 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.

In its response, the SCS stated that its archiving process “does not translate to fines being ‘written off’ and our officers can and do chase archived fines if circumstances change or new information becomes available”.

Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “There is a clear issue with transparency here. Now we are aware of the extent of the problem, the public will be appalled that almost a fifth of unpaid fines are hidden from public view.

“This is money the taxpayer is missing out on and it also means people who are being punished in court for a range of offences are not having to meet that penalty. This clearly sends out entirely the wrong message and completely undermines the credibility of the justice system.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Since SCS 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.

“Recent figures show that 86 per cent of the value of sheriff court fines imposed between 1 April, 2010 and 31 March, 2013 were paid or are on track to be paid, and payments directly deducted from benefits reached more than £1.6m in the ten months from April 2013 to January 2014. Collection rates will improve further once SCS is able to directly access information held by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

“Scottish officials are working with the DWP to introduce 
a statutory provision to allow this to happen at the earliest 
opportunity.”