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Unpaid Fines

Drivers who don't pay fines shouldn't be able to renew motor tax, says Courts Service

The Courts Service has called for the further reform of the court fines system.

DRIVERS WHO FAIL to pay fines for motoring offences should not be able to renew their motor tax or sell their vehicle until the money has been paid, according to new proposals by the Courts Service.

It has called for further reform of how the state deals with the non-payment of court fines after it claimed a new regime designed to improve collection rates was not working.

The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, which came into effect in January 2016, was introduced to provide judges with a range of non-custodial options for offenders who refused to pay court fines.

However, figures supplied by the Courts Service show that judges cannot consider alternatives to imprisonment, such as community service or attachment orders, as people who fail to pay fines are failing to show up in court.

The chief executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning, has recommended that fines for motoring offences should in future be recorded on the vehicle’s record so that they must be paid before motor tax can be renewed or the vehicle be sold.

Another key proposal for legislative reform suggested by the Courts Service is to allow for unpaid fines to be converted into a civil debt and enforced accordingly.

For example, Denning claimed it could become the norm that fines such as those for the non-payment of TV licences could be added to a Local Property Tax bill and parking fines could be replaced by a clamping system.

Denning has called on the Department of Justice to consider alternative options to make the collection of fines more efficient and reduce the workload on the courts system.

In the 12 months before the legislation was changed, almost 32% of court fines were paid before the due date. However, the rate has fallen to 26% since January 2016.

“This data suggests that more people are waiting longer to address the fine imposed than was the case under the former regime,” said Denning.

She said the Courts Service felt that as far as possible its work was complete after the imposition of a fine and that the courts should not be used as a method of enforcing non-criminal matters.

Denning said very few people, in practice, were committed to prison for the non-payment of fines because of overcrowding in the country’s jails, while some offenders regarded their arrest as a way of “clearing their fines debt.”

While the new legislation was intended to eliminate this, Denning said it showed that the new regime was dependent on people turning up in court when summonsed following receipt of a fines enforcement notice over their failure to pay a fine.

“Our experience is that this is not happening and we have, in effect, noted a partial replacement of the former fines warrants with bench warrants,” she added.

It is estimated that up to one-third of people summonsed for the non-payment of a court fine fail to show up for their second appearance which results in bench warrants being issued for their arrest by gardaí.

Call for reforms

In a recent letter to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Denning said the Courts Service had sought a meeting with a High Level Group consisting of officials from the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Attorney General, the DPP and the Probation Service as well as the Courts Service itself which is examining the legislation.

The group was established by the Department of Justice in early 2019 after the Courts Service had raised concerns that the Fines Act was not operating in the manner envisaged.

Denning said one of the main provisions of the legislation was that it allowed offenders to pay fines by instalment.

It provides for a fined person to pay 10% of the total value of the fine before the due date as the first instalment.

However, Denning said figures compiled by the Courts Service showed there had been “a very low take-up” of this facility.

Just 1.5% of all fines imposed since the commencement of the new legislation four years ago have been paid by instalment.

“The whole of government approach will be essential if we are to see significant improvement in this area,” Denning said.

Although the level of fines issued by the courts in recent years has remained relatively static, the amount collected in fines has fallen from €11.2m in 2014 to €6.9m in 2018.

At a Dáil Public Accounts Committee meeting in November, Fianna Fáil TD, Marc MacSharry called for the collection of fines to be restored to the regime that existed before the change in legislation.

“While the intentions were brilliant, it has not worked. Why is the default position not to revert back to what it was before rather than have a high level group?” asked MacSharry.

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Seán McCárthaigh
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