Bad debt of £10.9m in irrecoverable fines is undermining the justice system, says auditor Kieran Donnelly

The courthouse at Bishop Street, Derry.
The courthouse at Bishop Street, Derry.

Twenty million pounds in fines imposed by the courts, police and car licensing across the North remained uncollected at the end of 2015/6, which was almost double the amount of fines issued in that year, according to the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).

Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), said £10.9m of this £20m had to be written off: the highest amount of bad debt recorded since the NIAO started issuing its ‘Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service Trust Statement’ in 2011.

Mr. Donnelly said some steps, recommended by the Stormont audit committee nearly two years ago, have been taken to help address the non-collection of fines but he warned that failure to implement the recommendations fully would “undermine the credibility of the justice system in using fines as a means to deter crime”.

The ‘Trust Statement’ is an account that records the collection of financial penalties imposed by the Judiciary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the DVA.

Mr. Donnelly said: “At £19.8 million, the level of outstanding fines is exceptionally high when viewed against the fines issued in 2015/16 of £11.4 million.

“The amount of outstanding fines is reduced in the accounts by £10.9 million (55 per cent) that is judged to be irrecoverable.

“This is the highest amount of bad debt recorded since the Trust Statement was established in 2011.”

In a report, which the NIAO has now submitted to the Assembly, Mr Donnelly said the Department of Justice took steps to address issues highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in January 2015, which included establishing new governance arrangements and control structures over fine collection. But he said the action was not yet complete.

The NIAO explained how legislative provisions to allow for a civilianised Fine Collection and Enforcement Service were included in the Justice Act (NI) 2016.

The new service will be operational by the end of 2016/17 and new Collection Officers’ powers will include: granting additional time to pay; arranging instalment orders; taking deductions from an offender’s salary or wages or relevant social security benefits; and also recommending to the court, in appropriate circumstances, a vehicle seizure order or bank account order.

The auditor also explained how currently, the PSNI can only receive payment for the successful execution of warrants through the collection of cash but pointed out that there were inherent risks associated with cash collection that an officer, working on his or her own, could take cash payment for a warrant and not record the warrant as executed.

The PSNI is working towards the introduction of cashless payment options for the execution of warrants with a plan to launch a pilot exercise, said the NIAO.

Mr. Donnelly commented: “The delays in implementing the recommendations of the PAC report undermine the credibility of the justice system in using fines as a means to deter crime.

“It is important that the new fine collection and enforcement service is implemented.”

Progress in implementing the improvements and recommendations in the PAC report will be kept under review. Evidence of a successful debt collection process, resulting in a reduction in the number and value of fines remaining unpaid, will be monitored as part of future audits.