Special Report 37 - Collection of Fines
Published on 20 December 2000
Fines are financial penalties imposed by the courts for breaches of laws or regulations. In general, fines are intended to serve as a less severe form of penalty than imprisonment and are considered to be more appropriate for less serious offences.
Responsibility for management of the different stages in the process is spread across a number of agencies, but falls primarily on the Garda Síochána and on the Courts Service.
This examination aimed primarily to establish how efficiently and effectively the fines system operates in relation to cases within the jurisdiction of the District Court. Specifically, it sought to address the following questions
- When finable offences are detected, how successful is the fines system in ensuring that financial penalties are imposed and collected?
- How well are the various processes in the fines system managed by the Garda Síochána and the Courts Service?
- The report deals with the following main issues.
- Overall Effectiveness of the Fines System
- On-the-Spot Fines
- Legal Proceedings in the District Court
- Enforcement of Court Fines
- Management of the Fines System
Overall Effectiveness of the Fines System
The ultimate objective of the fines system is to reduce the level of offences committed by deterring undesirable behaviour. Consequently, the effectiveness of the system depends on the extent to which it leads to changes in behaviour and reduces the level of offences committed. Very little analysis of these impacts of the fines system has been carried out. In planning strategically to deal with specific types of offences, the relative effectiveness and cost of the various options for deterring undesirable behaviour (including direct action approaches like wheel clamping or seizure of vehicles) should be explored.
At an operational level, the fines system tries to ensure that, where a finable offence is detected, the offender should normally pay a fine or suffer an alternative penalty. Statistical information about the outcome of cases detected is poor, but the information which is available suggests that more than half of offences detected go unpunished. Most of the offences which go unpunished do so because of weaknesses in the administration and management of fine cases by the Garda Síochána or the Courts Service, or because operational policies give a relatively low priority to fines casework.
For a wide range of relatively minor offences, such as illegal parking, speed limit violations and failure to display motor tax or insurance discs, offenders may be given the option of paying a fixed penalty amount to avoid legal proceedings against them in the District Court - an 'on-the- spot fine'. This approach is intended to reduce the volume of cases going through the District Court system.
In 1998, the Garda Síochána issued a total of 400,000 on-the-spot fine notices, worth an estimated £12.1 million in fixed penalties. Payment of on-the-spot fines has increased from £3.4 million in 1995 to £8.2 million in 1998.
In on-the-spot fine cases, the proportion of offenders who choose to pay the fixed penalty amount varies by type of offence. Around 84% of motorists who received on-the-spot fine notices for speeding offences detected in 1998 paid the fixed penalty amount. By comparison, fixed penalties were paid by 61% of owners of vehicles found illegally parked. Only a quarter of the owners of vehicles found without tax or insurance discs on display paid the fixed penalty amount.
Where on-the-spot fines are not paid, the intention is that the case should be pursued through the District Court. It was found that over 20% of the parking and disc display offences detected in 1998 were cancelled or allowed to lapse. The reasons this happened are not adequately recorded, monitored or analysed. This prevents targeted action being taken to ensure unpaid on-the-spot fines are followed up. A more effective approach to pursuing persistent offenders is needed.
Planned changes in the on-the-spot fines system, including the more widespread use of speed detection cameras and the introduction of a driver penalty points system, will put increasing pressure on Garda systems. Unless the way in which these changes are implemented is properly planned and managed, the system is likely to become increasingly inefficient.
Legal Proceedings in the District Court
Legal proceedings commence when an application is made to the relevant District Court office for a summons. It is estimated that 625,000 District Court summonses were issued nationally in 1998.
A very significant proportion of summons cases which commence are not actually heard in court. For example, over 68% of all summons cases which commenced in Dublin in 1998 were unheard. Non-service of summons resulted in 44% of cases not being heard. A further 24% were struck out or withdrawn without being heard. Neither the Garda Síochána nor the Courts Service routinely monitor the reasons so many cases are not heard.
Where summons cases are heard in court, there is a high rate of conviction, particularly for on- the-spot fine cases.
The average penalties imposed on conviction in on-the-spot fine cases are considerably larger than the fixed penalties which offenders could have paid to avoid a court appearance. This should encourage a high rate of voluntary payment of fixed penalties in on-the-spot fine cases but the incentive to pay fixed penalties is seriously undermined by the failure to bring a large proportion of cases for hearing.
Legal proceedings in fine cases take too long. For example, for fine cases heard in 1998 in the Dublin courts, the time which elapsed between detection and court hearing averaged around eight and a half months. This represents a disimprovement on the position as established by a study in 1984. As a general principle, court hearings should be held as soon as possible after offences are detected. If all the steps in the legal process were carried out more efficiently and expeditiously, the overall elapsed time for legal proceedings could be reduced considerably.
Enforcement of Court Fines
Fines totalling an estimated £12.3 million were imposed in relation to 1998 fine cases. The available evidence suggests that many fines imposed by the Courts are not collected, resulting in a considerable loss of fines revenue. For instance, in Dublin only 55% of court imposed fines are paid. Based on the experience in Dublin, the loss of revenue through uncollected fines nationally may have been over £5 million in relation to 1998 summons cases.
The main mechanism used to enforce payment of fines is the issue of warrants for the arrest of the individual concerned. There are long delays in issuing warrants and many warrants remain unexecuted for long periods. Other enforcement procedures, such as payment of fines by instalment and attachment of earnings, could be more effective. The relative effectiveness of the various options should be examined with a view to improving the fine payment rate significantly.
In certain motoring offence cases, judges may order that the offenders be disqualified from driving or have their driving licences endorsed. Despite the seriousness of these penalties, there is no evidence that they are enforced any more effectively than fines.
Management of the Fines System
There is almost no overall management or co-ordination of the fines system. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why the system underperforms and why there has been little improvement in many aspects of the system over a long period. Clear responsibility and accountability for the overall performance of the system should be determined including agreeing relevant and challenging performance targets for the Garda Síochána and the Courts Service and regular public reporting on management achievements.