Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Law & Order : MacAskill’s Fiscal fines scheme a spectacular failure as 15,000 remain unpaid

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s amazing yet ineffective scheme for handing out ‘Fiscal fines’ to those convicted of minor criminal offences, as an alternative to prison, has been pronounced a spectacular failure by the legal profession, and opposition political parties, as revelations so some 15,000 fines have gone unpaid so far.(Everyone told you so, Kenny – Ed)

The Scotsman reports :

Fast fines scheme 'a failure' as 15,000 go unpaid

Published Date: 05 May 2009
By Michael Howie

NOT a penny has been paid of nearly 15,000 fiscal fines issued to offenders in Scotland last year, prompting widespread condemnation of the system and demands for an inquiry.

Leading QC Paul McBride last night led calls for the scrapping of the controversial fines, which are offered to minor criminals as an alternative to prosecution and were intended to ease pressure on the courts.

Procurators fiscal can offer fines of up to £300 to people accused of offences that would previously have been dealt with in sheriff courts, up from £100 last March. The system aimed to deliver swift justice to offenders while allowing courts to concentrate on serious criminals.

But figures published yesterday appeared to undermine a key argument behind the measure, with more than half of fines imposed last year not being paid in full – and nothing paid back in 41 per cent of cases. This was despite the recruitment of dozens of enforcement officers.

Mr McBride said: "There now has to be a complete rethink about fiscal fines and their effectiveness, because it is plain from today's figures they're no longer working in the way the government suggested they would."

Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell branded the figures an "absolute disgrace" and said they showed a criminal justice system in "meltdown".

Statistics given to Ms Mitchell by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill showed penalties worth £3.7 million were imposed by prosecutors last year as an alternative to court action. Of this total, £1.3m had been collected, £1.2m was being paid in agreed instalments and the other £1.2m was in arrears.

No payments at all had been made in 14,741 fines, or 41 per cent of the total, while a further 4,769, or 13 per cent, were in arrears. More than 57,000 warning letters had been sent out. Ms Mitchell said: "These figures are an absolute disgrace. It is surely bad enough that 54 per cent of fiscal fines, or 19,510, remain either unpaid or only partly paid, but the real revelation is the shambolic administration of these fines."

Describing the number of warning letters as "astonishing", she said: "How much have these letters cost in time and resources? In addition to the letters, there have been 4,485 court citations (notices to attend court) and over 14,000 enforcement orders applied."

Fiscal fines are usually issued to non-violent "low-level" offenders.

The option of the fine is offered to an accused via a letter from the procurator fiscal, after the alleged offender has been arrested and details of the offence reported by the police. Fiscal fines do not result in a criminal record, but they can be referred to in court for up to two years. If the accused refuses to accept the fiscal fine, they go to court.

A recent report by the Inspectorate of Prosecution gave fiscal fines a clean bill of health, stating the great majority of those examined were appropriate and proportionate.

But the scale of unpaid fines – an issue the inspection report did not cover – also came under fire last night from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Richard Baker, Scottish Labour's justice spokesman, said: "The fact that nothing has been paid back on 41 per cent of the fines issued last year does make a mockery of the system," he said.

"The public will only have confidence in the summary justice system if fines are paid and they are an effective penalty."

He said unpaid fines meant less money was available to invest in police and other services that could cut crime. "This is an unacceptable situation that the Scottish Government must address as a matter of urgency."

Lib Dem justice spokesman Robert Brown called on Bill Aitken, the convener of the Scottish Parliament's justice committee, to instigate a review.

"Given that the Tories are clearly also concerned, perhaps the justice committee should now examine this in more detail, with a view to developing suggestions to improve the system of fiscal fines," he said.

Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini has backed the use of fiscal fines and other so-called "direct measures" – including fiscal warning letters and compensation orders – claiming they have helped reduce the time it takes more serious cases to get to court.

The news about fiscal fines also comes hard on the heels of revelations that one in five court fines imposed is unpaid. Statistics obtained under Freedom of Information legislation showed collection rates running at just over 80 per cent for fines imposed by sheriffs and only 70 per cent for those handed out by justices of the peace.

Criminals and minor offenders owe at least £9.2m in overdue court fines – enough to hire more than 300 extra police constables a year.

A Scottish Government spokesman said a new enforcement regime had been introduced last year. "The regime, approved by the previous parliament, includes new fines enforcement officers whose work has freed up more police to keep our streets safe and enabled the courts to focus on serious criminal cases," he said.

"Following their recent information campaign, the Scottish Court Service is rightly taking several steps to target those who have ignored warnings over the first year and we hope to see further progress over the next year."

The court service said sheriffs had imposed £98.8m in fines in 2005-8. It said £75.8m had been paid and a further £5.8m was expected to be paid in instalments, meaning an overall collection rate of just over 80 per cent.

Sheriffs discharged another £10m in fines, often because offenders, including some defaulters, had been given alternative sentences, such as jail. Some £7.2m in sheriff court fines remained officially in arrears, with those who owe the money effectively going unpunished.

The court service said new justice of the peace courts issued £2.9m worth of fines between 10 March and 31 December last year, and £700,000 of that was already in arrears.

Yet another shambles in soft-touch Scotland

FISCAL fines were once billed as the great solution to dealing with petty offences and offenders – intended to free up the courts from trivial cases, prevent people from having unnecessary criminal records and streamline an over-crowded court system.

These are fines sent to people who otherwise would expect to be prosecuted but have the option of paying the penalty instead of appearing in court.

The policy was introduced by the government and the responsibility for the manifest failure of fiscal fines lies exclusively with it.

The procurator fiscal service has done its level best and has acted with total propriety in the way it has gone about its business, but the figures speak for themselves: out of £3.7 million in penalties imposed last year as an alternative to court action, only £1.3m has been collected.

In 15,000 cases, no payments have been made at all – 41 per cent of the total – and in another 15 per cent of cases the fines were in arrears.

Further expense has been imposed on an over-stretched criminal justice system by employing fines enforcement officers. And while more than 3,000 enforcement orders were applied, in only 750 cases were fines deducted from benefits.

No amount of spin can reveal anything other than that the policy has been an unmitigated disaster and one wonders about the expense and levels of bureaucracy which have resulted. The effect of all of this is that many people who have committed offences have escaped any form of punishment.

We know court sentences bear no relation to what people actually serve, we know that the government intends to abolish imprisonment under six months, we know that it has abandoned US-style courts that it had planned to introduce, and we further know that there has been a complete U-turn on controlling the sale of knives.

This week Scotland was described by the United Nations as being the most violent nation in Europe and we know that violent crime has risen by 12 per cent.

We also know that every 45 minutes someone breaches an order of bail imposed by the courts.

This latest shambles demonstrates that Scottish law and order policy has become an embarrassment and criminals no longer fear either the police or the courts: welcome to soft-touch Scotland thanks to the policies of the SNP and its Labour predecessor.

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