‘Soft touch’ fines being ignored by criminals

Paul McBride QC felt benefits-seizing measures were called for. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA
Paul McBride QC felt benefits-seizing measures were called for. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA
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THOUSANDS of fines imposed under a controversial system intended to free up Scottish courts have gone unpaid, according to figures described as a “slap in the face” for victims of crime.

Almost half of the 12,000 fiscal fines handed to offenders in the three months to the end of June this year have not been paid at all, according to latest figures.

And more than half of the total value of fines imposed since the system was introduced in 2008 have yet to be paid.

Official figures show £14.6 million worth of direct penalties have been handed out since fiscal fines were introduced – but only £7.6m has been paid by offenders.

Victim support groups said the failure to collect the fines would undermine the public’s confidence in the legal system.

Opposition politicians said the findings bring the Scottish justice system into disrepute, and are calling on the Scottish Government to step up efforts to claw back the missing millions.

The government insists efforts have been made to improve collections and an evaluation of the system is under way.

Fiscal fines are intended to offer swift punishment for minor non-violent offences such as vandalism and breach of the peace to ease the pressure on busy courts.

But they were recently branded a “waste of time” by one sheriff after he was forced to write off a drug user’s £100 penalty.

Despite the problems, prosecutors are handing out an increasing number of the controversial fines.

There were 12,071 issued between April and June this year, a 29 per cent jump on the same quarter last year.

No payment has been made in almost a quarter of the 143,500 fiscal fines which have been handed out in Scotland over the past three years.

The latest figures also show that only a third of the £1.2m worth of fines imposed this year are on track to be paid by offenders, while the value of payments in arrears has jumped by 46 per cent to £390,000 during this period.

Almost £1m has yet to be paid from the first year of the scheme in 2008-9 – with about 5,000 fine dodgers yet to make any payments at all three years down the line.

David Sinclair, spokesman for Victim Support Scotland, said: “If a fine of any sort is imposed for committing a crime, then that fine must be paid. Failure to get that payment will reflect in the confidence that people have in the justice system.

“Victim Support Scotland recognises that the fines system has had some initial success, but clearly there is some way to go to ensure that all fines imposed are recovered.”

He added: “We would hope, as I’m sure the Scottish Government will hope, that these figures improve. Fiscal fines are really still relatively new, but everyone in criminal justice will be hoping to see improvements in fine recovery.”

Paul McBride, QC, said he thought benefit-seizing legislation needed to be introduced to make it work.

“The principle is not wrong, it’s just that the enforcement of it needs to be improved,” he said. “We need powers to deduct the money directly from benefits or wages through the courts, but they are powers that we don’t have and need legislation for. I would not support a call to scrap it – simply make it work effectively.”

Thousands of offenders have also seen their fines written off. About £1.8m worth have been discharged since the system was introduced three years ago.

A total of 17,880 criminals have seen their fines discharged over this period, although this often happens after there has been some part-payment.

Labour’s shadow community safety minister James Kelly called on the Scottish Government to do more to make sure payments were made.

He said: “These figures are utterly staggering, and suggest the use of fines is soaring out of control under the SNP.

“It seems the payment of fines is becoming increasingly voluntary.

“Fines have a role to play in minor crimes, but the fact that the number of offenders not paying a single penny of their fines has increased by 33 per cent in one year alone is a slap in the face for victims of crime.

“It is clear the SNP government must redouble its efforts to crack down on offenders that refuse to pay their fines, to claim back the millions of pounds of public money that is going uncollected.”

The imposition and collection of fiscal fines are the responsibility of the Crown Office and Scottish Court Service (SCS), but the Scottish Government is now looking into the issue.

A spokesman said: “The government takes collection of fines seriously and has taken steps to improve collection through the appointment of fines enforcement officers.

“The SCS continues to use a range of tactics to ensure fine dodgers have nowhere to hide and there is no escape from justice.

“These include the seizure of wages, deducting money from benefits, the freezing of bank accounts and clamping vehicles.

“Their robust approach means that 81 per cent of the value of fiscal fines imposed in 2008-9 has now been paid in full or is being paid through arranged instalments.

“We have commissioned an independent evaluation of the fines enforcement process to explore the effectiveness of the provisions and inform further developments in practice.”

But Tory justice spokesman David McLetchie said the figures would undermine confidence in the system.

“This is yet another symptom of the SNP’s soft touch when it comes to crime and their reluctance to see offenders properly prosecuted and punished,” he said. “The level of non-payment brings the whole system into disrepute and undermines public confidence in the justice system.

“Before there is any further increase in the use of fines, we must first ensure that we are making criminals pay for their crime.”

There is a mixed picture across Scotland, but non-payment levels are particularly high in Glasgow, where more than half of the total amount of fines due are regularly in arrears.

There were £1.09m worth of fiscal fines handed out in Glasgow in 2010-11. Of these, £527,000 remain in arrears – 57 per cent of the total amount due.

Tayside, Central and Fife have the best record for payments in Scotland.

While fiscal fines were intended to punish low-level offences, it soon emerged that many people guilty of serious assaults were also receiving the fines.

The system was questioned earlier this year by Sheriff Lindsay Foulis, who admitted in court in Perth two months ago that there was nothing else he could do to punish a drug user who had refused to pay his fiscal fine.

The man could not be jailed for non-payment despite being hauled before six different sheriffs at eight hearings over three years, following arrests by up to 20 different police officers.