Government cannot afford to ignore £1.3bn in uncollected fines

first_imgAmid the last fortnight’s coverage of the government’s planned legal aid cuts, one potential alternative area of savings didn’t get any column inches: the millions of pounds that remain uncollected by the courts system every year. Some £1.33bn currently floats in this pool of outstanding fines, confiscation orders, compensation orders and legal costs, compared with £920m in 2005/06. Indeed, the matter either seems to have escaped justice minister Jonathan Djanogly, or at least, finding a way to open this treasure chest isn’t on the top of his to-do list. Take this interesting exchange in the House of Commons on Tuesday: Kris Hopkins (Con, Keighley) to Djanogly: ‘What recent progress [has] his department has made in recouping outstanding financial penalties that remain uncollected by HM Courts Service?’ Djanogly: ‘We have published impact assessments and equality impact assessments alongside the legal aid consultation, and these set out in detail what we think the effects of the proposals might be. ‘We must face up to tough choices, and our proposals focus resources on those who need help most for the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation are justified.’ Hopkins: ‘I think that was the wrong answer to my question. I hope the secretary of state has made progress in collecting the money that criminals have been fined, and may I ask that once we have collected some of the money and we have made a contribution to reducing the deficit, we increase our prison capacity?’ [Shouts heard in the chamber] Speaker: ‘Order. The minister delivered his answer with admirable force and self-confidence, but I think it suffered from being the wrong answer, as he was, perhaps, not expecting to be responding to this question. If he can provide us with the right answer to the question now, we will be very grateful.’ Djanogly: ‘I think the appropriate answer in the circumstances, Mr Speaker, is that we will look into this issue and get back to the house.’ When, and whether, Hopkins gets his answer, is a moot point. But regardless, the government has known for years that the pool of unpaid penalties has been getting deeper. The £1.3bn figure appeared in a National Audit Office report in July last year, accompanied by harsh criticism of financial management at the MoJ. The Magistrates’ Association said at the time that the failure to secure such a large amount of potential income, at a time of financial constraint, bordered on negligence. Figures in the billions often look better when written in full: £1,300,000,000. This is a lot of money. Even if only half can be recovered, it would go some way to plugging the gap left by the imminent legal aid cuts. And if the MoJ can really push HMCS to get better at recovering these debts, then there would be millions more flowing into the justice system – and potentially the legal aid budget – every year.last_img

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