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COVID-19 fines are on the rise, but options for challenging them are limited

New restrictions on personal movement designed to stop the spread of coronavirus look to have been accepted by the vast majority of the British public. Police, however, are still actively on patrol for people who flout the rules.

Breaking them risks a fine, as many people in the country are finding out.

As of mid-April, police from 37 forces in England and Wales had issued more than 1,100 fines for breaches of coronavirus regulations since lockdown measures were first announced.

Police are using their new powers to issue spot fines of £60 – and potentially another for £120 for a second offence – with gusto.

The government has stipulated that people should only leave their homes to go to work, buy essentials like food and medicines, take a limited amount of exercise, or obtain medical care. Most people are doing just that – staying at home or practising social distancing by keeping at least two metres away from others when they do have to venture out. 

While the home secretary says the measures are intended to ‘protect the public and keep people safe’, anyone who isn’t able to work from home, needs to see a doctor or is merely visiting their local Boots or Tesco’s, can find themselves being stopped and questioned. 

If police aren’t happy with the stated reason for being outdoors, a fine can result. But the options for challenging it are becoming limited.

Caught in legal limbo

Because of the pandemic, Courts are only dealing with high priority cases and have stopped listing matters relating to fines.

Despite that, penalty enforcement teams are in hot pursuit of payment – even if the people in default have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or are otherwise at risk of losing their jobs because of the pandemic. 

While we wait for the Courts to resume their full range of work, matters relating to COVID-19 fines can’t be progressed. Unless fine enforcement teams halt action against defaulters in response to a national crisis, many people who would otherwise challenge their fines will find themselves in a frustrating catch-22.

What powers do police have?

The government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 act enables police to take action if they ‘reasonably believe’ someone is breaking the law, and can show that the action they’ve taken is ‘necessary and proportionate’.

They have the power to order someone to leave an area, go home, disperse groups of people, or remove a person by (reasonable) force. They can also take steps to ensure that parents keep their children in line with the rules.

The £60 spot fine doubles to £120 for a second offence. The doubling continues for subsequent offences up to a maximum of £960.

While receiving a fine is not a criminal conviction, not paying it can result in enforcement action including (when courts resume normal working) being taken to court.

Refusing to provide name and address to police in an attempt to avoid a fine can result in arrest.

What can you do?

While the lockdown rules are still in-force and courts are unable to progress matters relating to fines, the options to challenge a COVID-19 related fine are limited.

The cost of initial spot fines issued by police can be cut to £30 if they are paid within two weeks. Beyond that, anyone who wants to challenge a fine – and is willing to risk enforcement action while they wait for courts to re-open – may wish to consider the following steps:

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has said that the appeal process for a COVID-19 lockdown fine will be similar to that for a fixed penalty notice, or a penalty notice for disorder.

  1. Be sure you know exactly what you have been fined for. Ask the police force that fined you to clarify what you’ve done to justify the penalty. You should also ask which law the penalty was issued under. The paperwork police gave you will also have details.
  2. When the relevant magistrates’ court re-opens for fine-related matters, a hearing would hopefully take place. You would then have an opportunity to explain why you feel the fine should not stand. The court would then decide whether it should be canceled.

If you do decide to contest a fine, under those circumstances, we may be able to offer some guidance. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

DWP can deduct fines from benefit payments, causing difficulty for struggling families

If you’re on a low income and you’ve been hit with a fine, you could face even greater hardship thanks to government rules that allow third parties to deduct debt payments directly from benefits.

Under the Fines, Council Tax, and Community Charges Regulations 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can take a fixed amount from benefit payments to clear fines and other household arrears like council tax and utility bills.

The policy takes power away from benefit recipients over already-limited finances, and in many cases forces people to spend cash that would have gone to essentials like clothes and food, on fines and monthly bills. 

  • The deductions can be made with no reference to the individual’s financial or personal circumstances.  
  • DWP can take action when requested by creditors. 
  • The rules allow DWP to reduce Universal Credit after deductions to 1p if necessary.

Research by the StepChange Debt Charity says the use of third-party deductions is making it harder for vulnerable families to cover the necessities of life, forcing them to use credit and creating a debt spiral as they struggle to stay ahead of bill payments.

The study found that more than 25 per cent of people having money deducted by DWP had two simultaneous deductions in place, while another 10 per cent had three deductions. 

People in a vulnerable position were also more likely to report having debt payments deducted from their benefits. More than a million deductions are taken in a typical month.

 

Understanding the rules

When deciding on a third-party deduction, guidance published by the Department for Work and Pensions says it will consider whether taking such action is in the interests of the person or family.

The DWP can make three deductions at any one time. It will apply an order of priority if more than three creditors apply to have deductions taken.

Before applying for a deduction, DWP requires creditors to have tried other methods to recover the arrears, for example, negotiating different ways of paying and managing bills. 

There must also be a real prospect of enforcement action against the individual before a deduction is considered.

Despite the above considerations, in practice, DWP frequently acts swiftly and firmly on behalf of creditors – and with minimal consideration of individual circumstances. 

A personal claiming Universal Credit can have a minimum of 5 per cent of an outstanding fine taken from their payment, up to a maximum of £108.35.  

In our experience, DWP takes the maximum permissible amount as standard practice.  

 

How much can DWP deduct from benefits?

 

 

What you can do

What DWP and it’s fines enforcement branch won’t tell benefits claimants is that they have the right to have decisions about third-party deductions reconsidered by the Court — and can ask to have their monthly deductions lowered.  

An application can be made pursuant to s.51 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 (‘variation of instalments’), which states that the Court has the power to vary an order for payment by changing:

  • The number of instalments payable
  • The amount of any instalments payable
  • The date on which any instalment becomes payable

In practice this means that anyone having fines deducted from benefits payments could make an application to establish a reasonable payment plan, and set a more manageable monthly amount.

 

We may be able to help

Based on your personal circumstances and the circumstances of the fine, we may also be able to make an appeal to DWP to deduct only the minimum allowable in your situation.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you. 

Contact us if you would like us to make an application before the Court and we can advise you on the merits of the case. We may also be able to apply for legal aid where appropriate in order to represent you in Court.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

 

Have you been issued a penalty fare by Transport for London?

TfL’s ‘public interest test’ could help you fight it

 

Fare dodging on Transport for London (TfL) is at an all-time high, costing the system £100 million a year, according to a recent report by the BBC.

As a result, TfL management is cracking down: making investments in security improvements, hiring more revenue protection staff and enforcing fines with greater vigilance — leading to a 15% rise in prosecutions last year.

The transport body is catching a larger number of people in its dragnet, but fares can go unpaid for many reasons:

  • Ticket machines and card payment systems don’t always work as they should. 
  • Oyster Card gates sometimes fail to read cards properly
  • People can forget to ‘touch in’ or ‘touch out’. 
  • Printing errors can obscure the terms or validity of a paper ticket. 
  • Rail fares can be complicated and misunderstandings can occur – even when a person fully intended to pay.

A trade in counterfeit TfL tickets can also catch people out, unaware that the card in their pocket they’ve just purchased is invalid.

If you have been taken aside by a revenue protection officer and issued a fine you believe is unjustified, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with TfL’s guidelines for enforcement before you pay up. 

While the agency is taking a firm line on fare dodging, it also recognizes that fines can cause undue hardship and may not always be in the public interest.

 

Understanding TfL’s ‘Interest of Justice’ test

Before issuing a fine for fare-dodging, Transport for London’s enforcement branch – which includes officers, investigators, and prosecutors, operates under guidelines that require it to consider each penalty fare situation as unique. 

Cases and evidence must be reviewed on their own merits before a final decision to prosecute can be made.

The final decision to prosecute can’t be made arbitrarily. There must be a realistic prospect of conviction and – crucially – prosecution of any alleged offence must be ‘in the public interest’ and seen to be both appropriate and fair.

The public interest test is applied to each offence, and considers three broad categories of evidence:

  • Previous behaviour is a crucial factor in weighing any case for disposing of a case in public interest. In order to take a prosecution forward, TfL considers the following:
    • Has there been a previous conviction for a similar offence on TfL or any other train service?
    • Has the accused been previously issued with a penalty fare?
    • Has the accused / offender previously been issued a formal warning by TfL?
  • Technical failures or ticket fraud are also taken into account as factors when assessing the public interest in pursuing prosecution. 
    • TfL’s guidelines specifically reference the Oyster Card payment system and whether or not the accused has failed to pay for the service, or failed to have sufficient Oyster Card credit before boarding a relevant service.
  • Other factors that could weigh against prosecution include:
    • The age of the accused
    • Where a prevailing medical condition may have contributed to the commission of the offence
    • Where prosecution is likely to be deemed malicious or ‘prejudicial to TfL’s interest’
    • ‘Exceptional circumstances’ where TfL simply takes a decision to discontinue proceedings based on a wide range of evidence it simply deems to be compelling

 

Options for challenging a TfL fine

Consideration of an offence under TfL’s public interest test open up several legitimate routes for challenging a penalty fare, from malfunctioning Oyster Card readers, first-time offenders, faulty payment terminals, issues related to the accused person’s eyesight or other medical conditions or disabilities, and a wide range of subjective circumstances specific to the accused.

The language used in TfL’s guidelines openly invites its prosecutors to use their discretion (‘nothing shall prevent the Appeals and Prosecutions Manager from withdrawing a case where there are exceptional reasons to do so‘). 

It also gives them flexibility to use their individual judgment (‘what constitutes exceptional reasons (for withdrawing a case) will be determined by the facts of individual cases’).

 

Have you been issued a penalty fare by Transport for London?

There are many reasons why a person might find themselves on public transport without having paid the correct fare. 

From simple misunderstandings about the validity of a ticket on a specific service to technical failures in the Oyster Card system, or exceptional circumstances that compelled you to use a TfL service without a ticket. 

  • Perhaps you were at a remote or unstaffed station where the ticket machine wasn’t operational. 
  • Perhaps a time-sensitive emergency required you to take a specific service under duress. 
  • Perhaps you boarded a train under the mistaken assumption you could purchase a ticket while on board.

If you’ve been issued a penalty fare you believe is unfair and might fall under Transport for London’s public interest rules, consider taking legal advice. 

  • In many cases, TfL can be convinced to dispose of an offence by merely issuing a warning letter.
  • TfL can also opt to issue a Formal Warning in lieu of prosecution. This is a more severe action than a warning letter, but still preferable to paying a hefty penalty fare.

Based on your personal circumstances and the circumstances of the offence, there may be a case for reducing your penalty to a warning or having the penalty fare withdrawn entirely. 

In each of those scenarios, we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

Unpaid fines: Dealing with debt collection via Marston Holdings

When UK courts are pursuing an unpaid fine, they outsource to a debt collection company called Marston Holdings. Unfortunately, we frequently hear of examples where debt collection agents take advantage of debtor uncertainty in order to obtain speedy payment.

If you are contesting or unable to pay a fine, or find yourself being contacted by a Marston representative, it’s important to understand how the company operates. 

The company has a toolkit for its agents that reflects national standards set by the UK Ministry of Justice and provides guidance and formalised processes to handle interactions with debtors.

Knowing the rules that set out what its agents can and can’t do when communicating with debtors, can help you manage what can be a stressful and intimidating experience. 

Stages of enforcement

Marston undertakes collection of unpaid fines in three stages:  

Compliance stage

Compliance begins with the issuance of a Notice of Enforcement, usually, a letter lent via normal post indicating the debt owed and including a demand for payment. Marston agents have to wait seven days (not counting Sundays or Bank Holidays) after receipt of the letter for the debtor to settle the debt. No further action can be taken during this period.

Often Marston will be asked by the court to wait longer than seven days before progressing to the next stage of enforcement and to make more attempts to contact the customer after this time, generally through further letters or by telephone. Marston says it is common for its clients (in this case, The Courts) to stipulate that four letters must be sent during the compliance stage before any further action is taken.

Enforcement Stage

If an outstanding fine is not paid during compliance stage, Marston will progress to what it calls the ‘enforcement’ stage, whereby a debt collection agent will visit the debtor’s residence to either obtain payment or ‘take control’ of items the debtor owns that can be resold as a way to clear the debt. 

Enforcement stage and Controlled Goods Agreements

‘Taking control’ in this case doesn’t necessarily mean removing items. In practice, Marston will usually seek to enter into a controlled goods agreement with the debtor. This involves taking an inventory of the debtor’s property to identify items that could be removed at a later date. Any identified goods stay in the debtor’s possession for a defined period to allow them a final opportunity to pay the outstanding fine.

Sale or Disposal

At this final stage, a Marston agent or agents will visit the debtor’s residence again, this time to remove the goods identified in the controlled goods agreement and transport them for resale.

Additional fees

In addition to the outstanding fine, a debtor may be charged fees designed to cover the costs of enforcing payment via debt collection. These fees are set by statute, and Marston says it is ‘obliged’ to charge them.

Regulations enacted in 2014 set out two fee schedules, one for High Court orders and another for non-High Court orders.

NON-HIGH COURT FEES

  • Compliance fee: £75
  • Enforcement fee: £235 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,500
  • Sale fee (selling at auction): £110 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,500

HIGH COURT FEES

  • Compliance stage: £75
    • 1st enforcement stage: £190 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,000
    • 2nd enforcement stage: £495
  • Sale or disposal stage:
    • £525 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,000

Marston applies these fees according to the stages of enforcement, so they are not based on the number of activities agents undertake at each stage and cannot be calculated in that manner.

How to lodge a complaint

If a debtor is unhappy with their treatment at the hands of Marston Holdings or its agents the company has formalised a three-stage process for handling complaints:

Stage one

The first step is for the debtor to make contact with Marston by email, fax, post or online to make a complaint and explain what has happened.

Stage two

If a debtor isn’t happy with the outcome of stage one, they can ask for their complaint to be reviewed by Marston’s Head of Customer Care. Marston will ask the reasons for disagreeing with the first-stage finding, and for any additional information to support their position.

Stage three

The final stage is an appeal process, through which a complaint may be referred to Marston’s independent Advisory Group, which is chaired by Elizabeth Filkin CBE, former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Members of the Advisory Group sit outside the company and are not Marston employees.

Other ways to lodge a complaint

Rather than lodge a complaint with Marston, Debtors are free to complain to the courts directly. The debt collection trade associations Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA) and the High Court Enforcement Officers Association (HCEOA) also have procedures for receiving complaints about member organisations.

Contact details for all the above are listed in Marston enforcement toolkit for its agents.

Has Marston Holdings contacted you regarding an unpaid fine?

Having a debt collection agent on your doorstep looking to inventory or seize your personal property is likely to be upsetting for anyone. It can be a frightening confrontation that leaves them feeling powerless and unable to challenge any demands.

If you’ve been contacted by Marston Holdings in relation to an unpaid court fine, consider taking legal advice. 

  • If your situation hasn’t been properly addressed by collection agents or you’ve been treated badly, the courts may take that into account. 
  • There may be a case for a reduction if you can provide evidence of low income and minimal assets, or even overturning the fine if there are grounds to believe it is unlawful. 

In each of those scenarios, we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

Unpaid fines: What to do when bailiffs come calling

Dealing with debt collectors can be a humbling and distressing experience. Some agencies resort to tactics designed to intimidate, harass, or take advantage of your uncertainty in order to obtain speedy payment.

When the courts are trying to collect payment of a fine, they outsource to a company called Marston Holdings. 

While courts have an obligation to pursue unpaid fines, it’s important to understand the rules that Marston and other collection agencies must follow when communicating with debtors, or attempting to take possession of goods in lieu of payment. 

There are things they’re allowed to do, but many other things they aren’t – particularly when dealing with persons deemed vulnerable under Ministry of Justice rules. 

If you can’t pay a fine due to lack of funds and you’re concerned about bailiffs knocking at your door, forewarned is forearmed.

Know the restrictions on debt collection agents

Marston debt collection agents (what we used to call ‘bailiffs’) have a code of conduct the courts expect them to follow, and national standards set by the UK Ministry of Justice that all debt collection agents must abide by.

When a Marston agent encounters a vulnerable situation, the Ministry’s rules demand that they tread lightly and take steps to ensure that vulnerable and socially excluded people are protected.

Debt collection agents have ‘… a duty to contact the creditor and report the circumstances in situations where there is evidence of a potential cause for concern.’ They must also avoid taking action which could lead to accusations of inappropriate behaviour.

Agents must withdraw from domestic premises if the only person present is under the age of 16, or deemed to be vulnerable by the enforcement agent. They must also withdraw without making enquiries if the only persons present are children who appear to be under the age of 12.

Other groups who might be vulnerable under Ministry of Justice rules include:

  • The elderly
  • People with a disability
  • The seriously ill
  • The recently bereaved 
  • Single parent families
  • Pregnant women
  • Unemployed people
  • Anyone with obvious difficulty understanding, speaking or reading English

Debt collection agents are also expected to provide interpretation services (including British Sign Language) when needed, and be able to provide information in large print or Braille for debtors with impaired sight.

What debt collection agents can’t do

In any situation where your property might be seized, the Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 sets out items that debt collection agents can’t remove. Typically these are possessions which are essential to employment, health, and the necessities of daily life. 

Items that can’t be seized include:

  • Equipment or other items which are necessary for use by the debtor in their job, business, trade, profession, or field of study (unless the aggregate value of such items exceeds £1,350).
  • Clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment, white goods required to satisfy the basic domestic needs of the debtor and every member of their household.
  • Items required for medical care or safety.
  • Assistance aids such as dogs and mobility scooters.
  • Goods that are also premises (e.g. caravans) are exempt if they are also a principal home of the debtor, or someone in their care.
  • Goods that the debtor has in their hands are exempt from seizure, if taking control of them is likely to result in physical confrontation.

Where the debt collection agent is attempting to gain access to a debtor’s home, Marston’s own toolkit for its agents says that in general they are ‘…only able to enter or re-enter a property peaceably, and without false pretences, by any door or any usual means by which entry is gained to the property.

That means bailiffs need your permission to enter, and can only access the property via your normal entrances and exits; e.g. through the front or back door, and not by climbing through an unlocked window.

Marston may however apply to the court for an order to force entry, which may be granted in some circumstances.

Is a debt collection agency chasing you for an unpaid fine? 

Having a debt collection agent on your doorstep looking to inventory or seize your personal property is likely to be upsetting for anyone. For vulnerable people it can be a frightening experience that leaves them feeling powerless, and not equipped to challenge any demands.

If you’ve been contacted by Marston Holdings in relation to an unpaid court fine, consider taking legal advice. 

  • If your vulnerable situation hasn’t been properly addressed by collection agents or you feel you’ve been treated badly, the courts may take that into account. 
  • There may be a case for a reduction if you can provide evidence of low income and minimal assets, or even overturning the fine if there are grounds to believe it is unlawful. 

In each of those scenarios we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

 

Who pays the fine when a child breaks the law?

Stories about children getting into trouble with the law are nothing new. From vandalism to petty theft and anti-social behaviour, public outcry often demands that something be done. 

The law is only too happy to oblige – but often it’s the parents who pay the child’s debt to society. If an offender is under 18 when a fine or other financial penalty is levied, mom and dad usually get the bill.

When handing down sentences for a crime, youth courts have many options. Depending on the child’s age amongst other factors, fines, orders and penalties can be given under four categories:

  • First Tier Penalties
  • Community Penalties
  • Custodial Sentences
  • Ancillary Orders

First Tier penalties can include fines. The maximum fine for an offender  under 14 years of age is £250 in Youth Court sentencing. If the child is between the ages of 13 and 18, the maximum fine is £1,000.

The size of the fine depends in part on the seriousness of the offence and how much the youth can pay. If the child is under 16, the youth court is compelled to order that parents or guardians pay the fine.

Youth court fines can be levied at these levels based on the age of the child:

  • 10-13 years: A maximum fine of £250
  • 14 years: A maximum fine of £1000
  • 15 years: A maximum fine of £1000
  • 16-17 years: years: A maximum fine of £1000

Ancillary Orders can include an order to pay compensation in any case where there has been loss, injury, or damage as a result of the offence. 

The youth court can order the child to pay all or part of the prosecution’s costs (within reason). In the case of under 16s, parents or guardians will usually be ordered to pay.

If the child does not have much money, then a compensation order may be given preference over a fine or costs. The rules establishing responsibility for payment are the same as the rules outlined for fines or costs levied against under 16s’. Parents or guardians are expected to pay.

What happens when a parent is expected to pay?

The truth is that, fairly or unfairly, the cost of a child’s criminal behaviour can be considerable for parents. The youth courts do not carry out a means assessment of the parents to understand their financial situation or query their ability to pay a fine, costs, or other order.  

Even if the child becomes an adult and starts working, because the crime was committed while they were under 18, it’s still the parent who has to pay.

What if I can’t pay the fine?

If you receive a court fine because of a crime committed by your child, there is only so much you can do yourself to fight it. 

You might make a case for a reduction if you can provide evidence of low income and minimal assets. But if you find yourself with a summons for non-payment, unpaid court fines, or believe the fine to be unlawful, we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

Understanding the Single Justice Procedure

Occasionally the drive to make things more efficient creates unintended consequences. For many defendants, the arrival of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) for minor offences has brought needless stress and hardship.

The system, which was rolled out to all courts in England and Wales in 2015, was introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to speed up processing of less serious offences such as rail fare avoidance, failure to pay the TV licence, and minor driving infractions: some 750,000 of which are dealt with by magistrates every year and normally result in a guilty plea.

Under the process, anyone accused of a range of non-custodial infringements (offences that won’t result in jail time) can enter a guilty plea by post or online form and have their case dealt with in a closed court.

In some cases you can see the logic behind it. Minor offences take up court time and the majority can be dealt with quickly by administrative means.

But the SJP has generated controversy. Magistrates have accused the Government of choosing efficiency over open justice by establishing a system which moves hundreds of thousands of offences behind closed doors.

And while it arguably streamlines court processes at the administrative level, there are concerns about the procedure’s fairness. Football stars may welcome it as a means of quietly pleading away non-serious driving offences, but the SJP can also be a blunt instrument that causes pain and consternation for normal people.

One of the main issues is the blanket assumption under SJP that anyone accused of an offence has a weekly income of at least £440 (based on the current national median income for pre-tax earnings). Unless the court receives evidence to the contrary, that income level is used to assess the ability to pay fines.

With court notices normally sent by post, if someone accused of an offence has moved address, they won’t be aware they are being prosecuted. The forms they need to complete to enter a plea aren’t sent in, and as a result, they are found guilty in absentia and sentenced based on a presumed weekly income that may be higher than what they actually earn.

The reality of SJP is that many of the people falling foul of it are either on benefits, low income or no income – yet the courts persist in presuming that anyone accused of an offence can afford an expensive fine.

If an accused didn’t pay their bus fare or TV licence, it stands to reason that they are unlikely to be earning £440 per week. For skipping a £1.50 payment they could end up with a fine of £500 or more.

What if an accused person can’t read or write, or has learning difficulties? What if English is not their first language? How are they meant to navigate what is supposed to be a simplified procedure? These are serious questions that affect legal outcomes every day.

It’s worth noting that, since 2010, the government has closed more than half of all magistrates’ courts, forcing defendants and sometimes police officers to travel 50 miles or more to access the justice system.

How SJP works in practice

Under SJP defendants receive a Single Justice Procedure Form that sets the allegation and the evidence that a prosecutor intends to rely on.

The form’s main purpose is to ask what plea you wish to enter (guilty or not guilty) in response. The deadline for doing so is tight – 21 days from the posted date on the form. Response time is clearly a factor, particularly if you plan to contest the allegation.

The form provides three plea options:

  • Not Guilty
  • Guilty and not attend Court
  • Guilty and attend Court

The Court will only accept ‘guilty and not attend court’ for the least serious offences.

What you can do if accused under the SJP

If you were unaware that you had been accused of an offence under the Single Justice Procedure and missed a court date, you may be able to submit a statutory declaration setting the conviction and sentence aside, after which you will be given a new date to attend court and begin the procedure again.

If you were aware of the allegation but didn’t understand the process or your responsibilities, and defaulted on the fine, you may be able to bring the matter back before the court. This is sometimes possible under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, s.165 (2).

Along with the Single Justice Procedure Form, the Court will send a “Means Form,” which is used to clarify your actual income. We may be able to assist you with completing and returning it, as it provides evidence the Court will use to determining the size of a fine if you either plea or are found guilty.

In any case where you have been unaware of proceedings, missed a fine because you were unclear on the procedure, or plan to plead not guilty, we would strongly advise you to obtain legal advice, and potentially have someone to attend Court with you.

How can Leslie Franks help me?

There is only so much you can do yourself when you receive a court fine. For instance, you can make the case for a reduction in instalments if you can provide evidence of low income and sparse assets.

But if you find yourself with a summons for non-payment, unpaid court fines, or consider the fine to be unlawful, we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court

Our services include:

  • Presenting a court case with a view to cancelling a fine
  • Organising and presenting a budget to the court
  • Making a plea for a fine to be suspended
  • Defending a non-payment of fine

If you have a low income or are on benefits we may also be able to represent you after an application for legal aid.

That is to say:

If the application for legal aid is successful, our services to you would be free of charge.

For more information contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit: https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

How Charities are Helping with the UK’s Rising Debt

According to research conducted by Money Advice Service (MAS) and CACI back in March of this year, 8.3 million UK families are living in debt. While it wasn’t reported exactly what type of debts so many people are struggling with, at Can’t Pay My Fine, we know that past-due fines are certainly a big part of the problem.

It’s sad to hear that, more and more, debts are becoming overwhelming and procedures for debt collection more intense and invasive. In May, it was reported that 20-year old Jerome Rogers tragically killed himself after two £65 fines escalated to £1000 and bailiffs clamped the bike that he used for work as a courier and waited outside of his home for nearly three hours.

The homeless are also being targeted as The Guardian reported that at least 51 people who have been convicted since 2014 after failing to pay fines of up to £1,100 for begging and loitering.

This certainly paints a grim picture not only of how fines – whether a result of speeding, TV licensing, unpaid child maintenance or court convictions – can dramatically affect a person’s well-being, but also how they can be targeted at disadvantaged groups.

The problem is so evident that, after Mental Health Awareness Week, the Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Halton urged anyone worried or stressed about their finances to get in touch for support.

While not all cases are this extreme, racking up debt does take its toll as it becomes more difficult to pay monthly bills and bailiffs can threaten your possessions, home and even freedom.  During such stressful times, many people don’t know where to turn. More and more, debt and other crisis charities are helping support Brit’s on their road to financial stability and mental recovery.

So, how can they help? While of course this depends on the individual charity, its mission and its resources, the goal is always to get you back on your feet, whether that be financially or emotionally. Most will offer support groups, helplines, individual advocacy and legal advice in order to give you practical solutions to move forward.

There are hundreds of charities throughout the UK, especially in London. While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, we do hope it helps if you or anyone you know is struggling with lingering debts.

Crisis Charities

Nia

Crisis

Homeless Link

Refuge

 

Debt Charities

Step Change

Debt Advice Foundation

Christians Against Poverty

Crosslight

 

To find out more information about each charity and to find out how they might be able to help you with your current financial situation, click through the links above.

Please also be aware that Can’t Pay My Fine can assess your case to find out if you’re entitled to free legal aid, with no prior costs involved.



Owing Council Tax

OWING COUNCIL TAX                                

We all have to pay council tax.  If someone owes an amount in council tax, the council may bring the case to the magistrates’ court, and the magistrates must then decide whether the debtor is guilty of wilful refusal or culpable neglect to pay the full council tax owed.  If the magistrates find wilful refusal or culpable neglect, then they have a number of options of what to do.  They may order deductions from benefits or from wages or salary to pay off the debt.  They can remit the debt if the debtor has no benefits, has no savings, and doesn’t receive any wages or salary.  Imprisonment is a last resort and must not be imposed if there is an alternative.  Magistrates have no powers to punish for council tax default.

 

THE REGULATION

The law is set out in Regulation 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. How that law should be enforced has been laid down by the High Court in a series of rulings which were made in the 1990s when thousands (about 1,200 people each year in 1993 and 1994) were sent to prison for not having paid in full their poll tax.  Some of these imprisonments were challenged in the High Court and the High Court declared them to have been unlawful.  This made the law clear about when magistrates can order custody for someone who owes poll tax.  The case law regarding poll tax imprisonment applies equally to imprisonment for council tax default, as the law on enforcement is essentially the same. When reviewed by the High Court the vast majority of these poll tax committals were held to have been unlawful.  When challenged at the High Court, council tax imprisonment has been found to be unlawful.

 

AN ORDER TO REPAY THE DEBT

Magistrates Courts may order someone who owes council tax to repay the debt in instalments.  A recent case in the High Court considered such orders.

The Court said:

It is usual, although not obligatory, for magistrates to suspend at least a first committal order on condition that the subject makes regular instalment payments towards the arrears.  However, they cannot make any unreasonable order for repayment.  Therefore, each instalment to be paid must be reasonable in amount, given the assessment of means that has been conducted. Furthermore, the period for which instalments are to be paid must be reasonable.  This is considered further below … but, generally, where the period is two or three years, an order will be reasonable.  Cases will be rare in which an instalment period of over three years will be appropriate.  In no case has an instalment period of over five years been considered appropriate. 

 

WHAT THE MAGISTRATES MAY DO

The magistrates have no powers to punish anyone who owes council tax.  Owing poll tax or council tax is a civil debt, it is not a crime.  The power to order imprisonment is to be used to force payment where the debtor has the means to pay.  This power may not be used to punish someone for not having paid.

‘The court has now repeatedly made clear that the purpose of the powers of the court under Regulation 41 are not the powers of punishment for past misdeeds, but powers to ensure future payment of past liabilities’.

Imprisonment is a last resort.  It cannot be imposed if there is an alternative.  ‘It is established that it is wrong in law to pass a sentence of imprisonment when an alternative to imprisonment is available.’

There is always an alternative open to the court.  If the debtor is on benefit the magistrates may order deductions from benefit until the debt is cleared.

If the debtor works, the magistrates can order attachment of earnings, and the employer must pass the money to the council before the debtor receives wages or salary.

If the debtor has no benefits and receives no wages, but has money in the bank, the court can order an attachment to that money to clear the debt.

If the debtor has no money in the bank, no wages, no benefits, they cannot be refusing to pay, nor can they be guilty of ‘culpable neglect’ to pay: there is therefore no power to commit to prison.

The court can cancel the debt if is seems to be the just thing to do.

 

TO CONCLUDE

There is currently a campaign organized by Naima Sakande of the Centre for Criminal Appeals asking the Government to repeal the provision to commit someone to prison for up to three months because of council tax default.  We argue that there is no place in a modern society for the cruel and unlawful practice of imprisoning some of the people who have the most difficulties in life and are least able to cope, for the ‘crime’ of not having a circle of friends or family who can come to the rescue when times are tough. In these days this legacy of the past should be taken o the statute book. Prison is a place for the most serious and dangerous of criminals, those whose crimes have caused the most trauma and damage. It is no place for those who have experienced financial hardship and are in debt:  https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/mar/26/taking-action-for-those-jailed-over-unpaid-council-tax

See:

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=23237%3Aimprisonment-for-council-tax-default&catid=49%3Acomment-a-analysis-articles&Itemid=1

 

R.Epstein, Imprisonment for Debt, Criminal Law & Justice Weekly,  Vol. 181, 4 February 2017.

 

Rona Epstein is a Research Fellow in Coventry Law School

R.Epstein@coventry.ac.uk