NI: Action needed to help courts with debt collection and historic debts

NI: Action needed to help courts with debt collection and historic debts

Jacqui Durkin

Action is needed to help the Fine Collection and Enforcement Service (FCS) collect unpaid fines and deal with historic debts, according to a new report.

An inspection report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) examined the arrangements in place to take enforcement action when someone defaults and fails to pay either a fixed penalty notice, a fine or other financial penalty imposed by a court.

The report reveals that between 1 June 2018 and the end of December 2020, around £3.6 million of unpaid monetary penalties were collected by the FCS from people who failed to pay their fine or penalty within the time set by the court.

However, it also reveals that there were about 52,600 historic or “legacy” cases of unpaid fines or monetary penalties that pre-dated the establishment of the FCS.

Chief inspector Jacqui Durkin said: “This backlog of old unpaid fines, which is estimated to be over £13 million and more recent accumulating unpaid fines, won’t go away by itself but will only continue to grow without the resources and legislative power needed to take effective action.

“Older debt is usually harder to collect and defendants’ circumstances can change from when a fine is imposed, making effective enforcement action more difficult.

“A new legacy fine unit should be established inside the next nine months, to focus on the collection of these outstanding fines. This unit would engage with the judiciary around how best to manage the process of bringing these cases back before the courts to obtain the collection orders required to recoup the outstanding fines or hold fine default referral hearings.”

She added: “I welcome the Order made in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 29 June to progress the legislative reform required to enable the FCS to work with the Department for Communities and, if it is appropriate, deduct money from Universal Credit benefit payments to pay outstanding fines.

“Inspectors recommend that in support of this change, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) should effectively resource the FCS to deal with the accumulated backlog of cases that exist.”

The report also highlighted the need for the NICTS to secure additional contact details and key personal information about the identity of any person who has a fine imposed at court.

Ms Durkin added: “Collecting this information would improve communication and reduce the current reliance on posted letters to engage and encourage fine payment and could reduce the cost of issuing a personal summons for a person to return to court when they have defaulted on their fine.”

The chief inspector said she welcomed the reduction in the number of fine warrants being issued to the PSNI for execution following the introduction of the FCS, but that there were still too many people being committed to prison for short periods of time for failing to pay a fine.

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