Charlene Dempsey summarises the new fine collection and enforcement legislation effective from 1 June 2018

Part 1 of the Justice Act (NI) 2016 which provides for the enforcement and collection of fines and other penalties commenced on the 1st June 2018.

The new arrangements aim to tackle the longstanding issue of fine default by improving collection rates through new collection options and enforcement powers, also resulting in reduced police involvement in fine enforcement and reduced numbers of debtors going to prison for default.

The provisions apply to ordinary court fines, compensation orders, offenders levy, costs ordered by a court, fixed penalties and penalty notices. The provisions do not apply to confiscation orders which will continue to be enforced under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

If you have received any form of court fine on or after the 1st June 2018, here’s what you need to know:

If you fail to pay a court fine, your case will be referred to a Collection Officer. If the Collection Officer is unable to contact you or you refuse to engage, they can apply to a Magistrates’ Court for the issue of a summons to require you to attend an interview with them. The Officer can then attempt collection by granting an extension of time to you in which to make full payment, set up an instalment scheme, or arrange to deduct the debt from your wages. The matter may also be referred back to a court and there is a possibility that any bank account in your name could be frozen (up to the amount owed) on a temporary basis until the matter has been resolved. The Collection Officer may also make a request that any vehicle owned by you be seized.

Below is a summary of each of the scenarios open to the Collection Officer and or the court under this new system:

Deductions from benefits

An application will be made to the Department for Communities that the debt be deducted from your benefits. Such an application can only be made in respect of persons aged 18 years and above and may only be made in respect of the following benefits:

  • Jobseekers Allowance
  • State Pension Credit
  • Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Universal Credit will be added in due course.

Attachment of Earnings

An attachment of earnings order may be made against a person who is aged 18 years and over and is in employment. The order will go directly to your employer with a direction that the employer deduct the amount from your wages.

The Collection Officer will have authority to require from you details of your actual or anticipated earnings as well as your employer’s details. The amount deducted will be in accordance with the amount owed and the income received by you. Details can be found at Schedule 2 to the Enforcement of Fines and Other Penalties Regulations (NI) 2018. Your employer will also be entitled to deduct a small administrative fee of £1 from your earnings for every deduction made and paid in respect of your debt.

Bank Account Order

These Order’s will allow money to be taken from your bank accounts providing they have sufficient funds to make payment.  The Collection Officer will have authority to freeze the amount owed by you on a temporary basis, before referring the matter back to the court for it to consider making an Order for full payment. If an Order is later made by the Court, your bank will be required to make payment of the full amount to the Court. Such an Order will only be made in circumstances whereupon a payment of the full debt would not result in your bank balance falling below the sum of £5.00.

Vehicle Seizure Orders

This option will only be considered by the Collection Officer after all other options have failed or are considered inappropriate. A request for a Vehicle Seizure Order must be referred to the court and you will be entitled to make representations to the court before any Order is made. If an Order is made, the vehicle may be sold, scrapped or otherwise disposed of and any proceeds of sale will be used to pay the outstanding debt.

The vehicle must be owned by you and have enough value sufficient to pay the unpaid amount including any charges incurred (i.e for storage). Vehicles that are used to transport disabled or vulnerable persons cannot be seized.

Even if a Seizure Order is made against your vehicle, you will have the opportunity to re-claim it by paying the outstanding financial penalty, removal and storage charges within 28 days of the Order.

Supervised Activity Orders

If a supervised activity order is imposed upon you, you will be required to undertake community based activities to clear the debt owed. An activity order can only be made against you if the outstanding debt amounts to a maximum of £1,000. You could be required to complete between 10 – 150 hours depending on the value of your debt and this could last for a period of up to 35 days maximum. The supervised activity order will be monitored by staff at the Probation Board for NI.

Power to issue and arrest warrant for failing to attend a referral hearing

If you are summonsed to attend a referral (default) hearing and fail to turn up, the court may issue an arrest warrant. This would confer powers upon the PSNI to arrest you and bring you before the next available court. This could result in you having to stay overnight at a Police Station before being taken to court the following morning. A warrant can only be issued if the court considers you are evading service. The court must also be satisfied that you are aware of the liability to pay the debt and of the possible consequences of failing to do so. The court must also consider the issuing of a warrant is proportionate in order to secure your attendance before the court.

It would be open to you to pay the full amount of the debt to the police or the Court at the time of arrest.

You could be guilty of committing a criminal offence if you fail to comply with requests made by the Collection Officer either by:

  • Failing to provide the information requested by them;
  • Providing false information knowingly or recklessly;
  • Failing to disclose a material fact;
  • Non-compliance with an enforcement order; and
  • Concealment in relation to a vehicle subject to a Vehicle Seizure Order.