Criminals have failed to pay more than £5 million of fines imposed by courts in Scotland, it has emerged.
There are now question marks over the Scottish Government’s plan to extend the presumption against short jail sentences to 12 months amid fears that offenders don’t take alternative punishments seriously enough.
The latest figures from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) show £5.2 million of sheriff court fines from 2014-15 to 2016-17 were unpaid – 15.9 per cent of the total handed out in that period. The sum includes £2m of fines issued back in 2014-15.
Court bosses insist the system is improving. The majority of the £32.6m in sheriff court fines imposed over the period have been paid (£25.6m or 78.3 per cent), with payments on track for a further £1.9m (5.8 per cent).
But Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said the figures show many criminals are treating the rule of courts with contempt.
He said: “These figures show a large number of criminals already don’t take alternative punishments like fines seriously. The £5m deficit isn’t just money lost to the taxpayer, it’s a slap in the face to victims of crime too.”
He added: “Now the soft-touch SNP wants to get rid of jail sentences of 12 months or less, this problem will get even worse … And considering so many don’t seem to think they have to pay up, this shortfall will only get worse.”
Ministers have already introduced a presumption against three-month jail terms. But the number of these sentences handed down by courts has barely shifted, prompting concerns they are being snubbed by judges. though they need to provide a written explanation if they choose to impose the shorter sentences.
The SCTS said that since it took responsibility for the collection and enforcement of fines, rates have “steadily improved and remain strong”.
The organisation said that 84 per cent of the value of sheriff court fines imposed from 1 April, 2014 to 31 March, 2017 has either been paid or is on track to be paid. In addition, more than £55m of the value of all penalties due to be paid has been paid or is on track to be paid in instalments.
Clamping cars, and deducting payment directly from benefits, savings or wages are among the measures it uses to pursue unpaid penalties.
A Scottish Government spokesman said of the SCTS: “Their robust approach to pursuing all outstanding fines gives a clear message to defaulters that there is no place to hide.”
They added: “We have made absolutely clear that the presumption against short sentences is just that; a presumption and not a ban. Sentencers retain the discretion to pass the most appropriate sentence based on the facts and circumstances of the case.”