One of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system is that ability to pay should be considered when setting a fine.
On the face of it, this seems entirely reasonable. Fine a rich man £100 and he doesn’t give a damn; fine a poor man the same, and he’s financially crippled. So, when sentencing anyone for a crime, it make sense to assess their financial situation and put that assessment in the pot, along with the nature of the crime, when considering an appropriate sentence.
However, here’s how it really works.
The vast majority of crime in any given area is committed by a very small number of persistent criminals, and the nature of these crimes – theft, shop-lifting, vehicle document offences (no tax, MOT etc.), minor criminal damage – is such that a fine is the usual punishment.
But almost invariably, they have no job, and no savings; they are in receipt of state benefits, and have outstanding fines from previous offences.
So their ability to pay almost any fine is non-existent.
Well, you may say, then give them another punishment option – perhaps a couple of days in prison, or some work in the community, or a curfew, or something like that. Nice idea, but not possible. The punishment must fit the crime, and the tariffs are set to reflect that rule. Prison, and those other options, are simply not available to punish the kinds of crime which would normally be dealt with by a fine.
The practical, real-world, bottom line for these cases is summarised like this:
No job? No money? No fine. No justice. So No worries! Life is good.
I have sat in many cases where we’ve handed down a paltry fine to a persistent offender because of this.
Now lets add to that sorry state of affairs a few more truths.
How do we know that an offender has no ability to pay a fine? Some rigorous examination of their assets? Legal powers to inspect their bank accounts and financial status? Nope. We ASK THEM. We invite them to fill in a small three-fold A4 means form. They bring it to court and we read it. THAT is the process we use to assess the financial status of known criminals – we take their word for it!
And in fact, often they can’t be bothered to do that either. Do we send them out to fill in the form properly? No. Do we hold them in contempt of court and punish them for that? No. We just ask them a few questions:
“Got any money? Nah, Oh, OK then.”. Rigorous justice in action in our courts, daily.
And finally this. One day, I went down to our fines office to see how that worked. A very nice young lady working there let slip that they help offenders to fill out their means forms there, and they often guide them to not declare income or assets – because “they’ll have that off you”. So officers of the court are advising known criminals to pervert the course of justice by lying on their means forms to conceal assets, to avoid having them seized.
The summary is this. For a range of offences which, though not massively serious, cause the general public cost, inconvenience and distress, the perpetrators are largely immune from justice.
No-one should be able to routinely escape justice in this way, and the solution doesn’t seem very hard to design:
Assess financial status rigorously
Seize assets where necessary (legally possible now, but – on my bench – never done and frowned upon)
Allow moving up-tarrif to unpaid work and further, for any offence when fines cannot be paid