Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs has highlighted the unacceptable cost of fine enforcement services. Speaking after the issue was raised during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, the East Antrim MLA also questioned why the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service is taking two more years to implement a modernised system that would save literally millions of pounds.
Mr Beggs said;
“Over the past number of years an increasing number of people have ended up in prison for the non-payment of fines. Our prisons should be for people who commit serious crime, not for people who fail to pay fines. That is why I believe the current system needs reviewed.
“The justice system in Northern Ireland often seems out of touch with reality. At present a fine default of as little as £50 could result in disproportionate, bureaucratic, inefficient response from our legal system. I welcome the fact that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has produced a number of recommendations to help reform the process.
“One of the six PAC recommendations states that “The timetable for reform has already slipped and the Committee recommends that the Department takes all steps necessary to re-examine the current legislation, and, at the very least, take all necessary steps to ensure that there is no further slippage. A key objective of reform should be to ensure the system represents value for money and makes the best use of the limited public resources available.”
“Undoubtedly the costs involved in taking legal action against a fine defaulter are significant. A fine default court hearing, involving court and legal aid, costs almost £200. The cost of the PSNI issuing a warrant to fine defaulter is estimated to be £122.
“In addition, subsequent court hearings can result in imprisonment, and with the cost of imprisonment being over £200 a day, it clear that it is an ineffective use of public funds.
“One of my biggest concerns during the Public Accounts Committee hearing was the apparent lack of urgency from the Department of Justice officials concerning introducing a new system which works well elsewhere. This issue were first raised in 2008 and exposed in the Criminal Justice Inspection report of 2010.
“It is vital that the much talked about new system which would enable fine payments to be sourced by courts through deductions in salary, benefits, bank accounts and allowing vehicles to be seized is introduced without further delay. By doing so millions of pounds can be saved for the PSNI, for the Courts Service and for the Prison Service all of whom badly need extra resources.”