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Can you go to jail for not paying a fine

What You Need To Know

There’s a short answer to this that can be found in a simple headline:

“AN OFFENDER who failed to pay his court fine has been jailed.”

(The York Press, UK 2014)

The headline may seem to reference an extreme case but if someone refuses to pay a court fine they may find themselves jailed.

A missed court fine payment is not advisable!

In this instance, the offender’s case began life at a magistrates’ court with a conviction for assault and criminal damage. Due to some mitigating circumstances of the crime he was fined and given a community order but: he failed to pay the fine or carry out the order.

He owed the court £405 which he had first agreed to pay off at a rate of £10 per fortnight. However, despite being in work he failed to pay. In fact, the offender failed nine times to abide by the court’s ruling and was eventually jailed for 120 days.

This is an example of how a relatively small sentence can easily be bumped up to something more life-changing when an offender takes too lightly the court’s sentence of a fine.

In order to avoid a circumstance such as this we’ve put together for you a guide on the process a court follows in the event of non-payment.

In doing so, we may just be able to help you avoid a custodial sentence or an increase in your fine.

If you want to talk to us direct then call us 0800 6127 128.

We’re available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

The amount of a fine may be set at an initial hearing or be levied as a fixed penalty notice (where the level of the fine is pre-set). Fines are given in relation to summary offences such as:

  • Driving offences
  • Non-payment of a TV licence
  • Non-payment of taxes
  • Non-payment of TfL fares
  • Minor criminal damage
  • Public order offences

If you are accused of one of these offences you’ll be summoned to appear at a magistrates’ court where your case will be heard, usually by a bench of either two or three magistrates or a judge.

In short:

  • The judge sentences you to be fined
  • The court makes a collection order detailing how the fine is to be paid
  • The details are sent to you after the case is closed
  • The order will include details of how to pay.

For a big percentage of offenders, the experience of a spell in court will have been unpleasant and will more than likely act as a deterrent to future misdemeanours.

That is at least what is hoped for by the judge overseeing the case.

What happens after the case is not as straight forward for some as it is for others. And yet paying a fine according to the terms laid out by the court is often the most important part of the process.


When would you not pay a fine?

You will in most cases have an option of paying court fines in installments, in full or by an attachment to earnings or benefits order.

But what reasons may there be for a missed court fine payment? It is known as a priority debt and as such should be given as much importance among your monthly or weekly outgoings as a TV licence or council tax.

We may divide the reasons into three for simplicity’s sake:

  1. Forgot to pay
  2. Can’t pay
  3. Won’t pay

Arguably number 2 on our list is probably the only reasonable excuse, but all three can land you in a lot of trouble especially if you don’t contact the court fines officer to let them know what is going on.

The ability of the convicted to pay is taken into account when both the amount of the fine and the length of time it requires to be paid are being considered. That’s why it’s important to state your financial situation.

Luckily, judges tend to be reasonable human beings. They are professional lawyers permanently employed by the Ministry of Justice and are interested in justice and fairness.

When sentencing they understand that not everyone is financially buoyant, which is why it is important for them to know if “Can’t Pay” is a possibility.

So, what if you…

1. Forgot to pay

As far as the court is concerned, a preferred option of payment is an electronic bank transfer (or payments made through the GOV.UK website). Doing so eliminates the danger of you forgetting to pay an installment on the due date.

The first thing you will be asked after a missed court fine payment is ‘why’? In truth, there could be a number of reasons, such as being on holiday when the fine instalment is due or suffering an illness.

However, if you do miss a payment because you forgot about it and you have not previously contacted the fines officer you will be regarded as being in default of the payment.


2. Can’t pay

If you agree with the fine but have a valid reason for not being able to pay in full or by instalments, then a more suitable way to pay will be offered.

However, in a situation such as this is you MUST still contact the fines officer at the issuing court to discuss your case before the first payment is due.

A reasonable excuse for not being able to pay is lack of money. Perhaps you are on a low income or have recently lost your job or have other large priority debts that are draining the little income you have.

If you have been served with an order to revisit the Magistrates’ Court for a missed court fine payment because you just don’t have the money Leslie Franks can represent you. We’ll present the court with a rock-solid case and hope for a delay in payment, reduce the amount of the instalments or even an over-turning of the fine.


3. Won’t pay

This is a harder position to defend. Although you have a right not to agree with the ruling, unless you enter a dispute the court will consider you in breach of the order.

You may believe that you are not guilty of the offence or that the fine imposed is too harsh. If you wish to appeal the sentence you are advised to seek legal representation.

Leslie Franks will take all of the factors of the case into consideration but time is of the essence in a situation such as this, since the court will have already begun its process of enforcement for your lack of contact or payment.

Our fully-qualified lawyers are available 24 hours a day and can begin the process of appeal as soon as you wish.


What happens next?


1. Forgot to pay

If you don’t pay your fine for whatever reason, you will be regarded as being in breach of the court order.

When this happens, the court will send a statutory notice (Further Steps Notice) which requests you bring the account up to date within a certain number of days.

This notice will be sent to the address held on the court file. It outlines the amount outstanding and includes an explanation of what happens if you don’t pay the fine. More often than not the full amount of the fine will then need to be paid within 10 days.

If you didn’t already set up an instalment plan using the BACS method of payment you will be asked to set up a bank order. A recurrence of the non-payment will fast track you to the status of “Won’t Pay” (see below).


2. Can’t pay

The same process is applied to the case of someone who can’t pay their fine. After all, the judge doesn’t know why you haven’t paid; all they know is that the order to pay has been breached.

If you cannot pay the amount stated on the Further Steps Notice due to the fact that you have no money you must contact the fines officer as soon as possible. Their details will be included in the Further Steps Notice.

You will be considered for a review of the repayment order if you can prove that:

  • You didn’t submit to the court a statement of your finances (Means Enquiry Form (MC100) before the fine was issued
  • Your circumstances have changed since the fine was issued and because of this you can’t afford to pay as much each month

3. Won’t pay

Again, the process of sending out a Further Steps Notice will be followed. Should you not notify the court of your intention to appeal the sentence and instead you continue to breach the order, a Distress Warrant will be issued.

A Distress Warrant is a judge’s means to enforce the payment of a fine. It is basically an unpaid court fines warrant, and it results in one or more of the following:

  • An enforcement order to take money directly from your wages or benefits
  • The issue of a Warrant of Control to an out-sourced bailiff company
  • The registration of the fine (adding the fine to your credit history for five years)
  • An order to clamp your vehicle with a view to the court selling it

If you still refuse to pay the fine and have not begun to arrange a dispute, the court will use its powers to punish you further for the non-payment.

In the most serious cases of blatant non-payment and after every avenue is exhausted, the judge can send you to prison. However, this will come after at least one further hearing when you will be given an opportunity to more fully explain your reasons.

If the court deems your reluctance to pay as what’s called a ‘wilful refusal’ or ‘culpable neglect’ you may be sentenced to anywhere up to three months in jail.


What defence is there for non-payment?

In truth, there is very little defence for a missed court fine payment and even less for wilful refusal to pay. However, you may be able to dispute a fine if you think you do not owe the fine (the sentence is unjust) or challenge the amount of the fine if you think it is too high.

This is done through an appeal process (not on the day of your initial hearing) and an appeal is something that is best helped along by a legal representative.

If you are considering appealing your sentence or you believe the fine to be excessive you should contact Leslie Franks for advice at the earliest opportunity.

If you think you will struggle to pay a court fine, don’t bury your head in the sand. You must contact the court’s fines officer to explain your situation (the judge will look favourably on you for doing so).

The consequences of not doing so are serious.

If you’ve received a court summons for failing to pay a fine, then our team of fully-qualified solicitors can help.

Our advice is free and impartial and if you so wish you can be represented in court by one of our fully-qualified solicitors. Contact us to discuss your case and find out whether we can help you.

In the interest of justice, it is always worth having legal representation.

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