Courts across Swindon and Wiltshire have been left with a mountain of unpaid debt totalling more than £5.5mn, report the Swindon Advertiser.
The outstanding monies are owed from financial penalties and charges and is part of a £2bn amount owed nationally, which has led to the system being criticised by MPs. The outstanding balance, held at Wiltshire Accounting Centre, was revealed in a reply to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Swindon Advertiser.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service, an agency of the Ministry of Justice, failed to answer the initial request and the information was only provided six months later after a complaint was made to the Information Commissioner’s Office. When the reply eventually came the courts service initially refused to provide details of the fines incurred by Swindon magistrates and crown courts on the basis that providing the data would take more than three-and-a-half days to collate.
The Ministry of Justice’s financial housekeeping was criticised in March by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises the Government’s spending, MPs accused the department of a cycle of failure and called on it to do more to tackle the backlog.
Inadequate progress had been made in maximising the department’s income, the committee said.
A spokesman for the courts service said:
“The Government takes the issue of fine enforcement very seriously and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is working to ensure clamping down on fine dodgers is a continued priority nationwide. “The courts will do everything within their powers to trace those who do not pay. Money can be taken from an offender’s earnings or from benefits if they are unemployed.
“Warrants can be issued instructing court employed agents to seize and sell goods belonging to the offender. Ultimately an offender can be imprisoned for non-payment of their fine.”
The courts service is implementing a system that it says will make paying and collecting fines more efficient. Steps taken include better trained and equipped civilian enforcement officers, with more tracing tools at their disposal to track down fine dodgers, closer working with magistrates to get more fines paid on the day they are imposed, full access to benefits information by courts service staff and new payment methods including online facilities.
Telephone debt collection will also be more widely used along with text messages to warn of the consequences of non-payment.