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£3m owed to courts in unpaid penalties
COURTS across Cumbria are owed more than £3 million in unpaid court fines - a figure that undermines the justice system, says Cumbrian MP Tim Farron.
Debt levels obtained by The Westmorland Gazette through a Freedom of Information request reveal that £3,301,794.40 is currently owed to magistrates and crown courts in Cumbria.
Outstanding costs include fines given as punishment in courts, compensation orders, £15 victim surcharges, prosecutor costs and unpaid fixed penalty notices, all of which are enforced by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service.
Some fines are being paid off, while others are not being paid because the person they apply to is fine dodging.
MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, said: “Not only is this a waste of money but it is the fact that there are people out there who have committed crime and who are essentially getting away with it scot-free. It hugely undermines all the police’s efforts to improve our system of justice.”
He said Cumbria’s fine levels were surprising considering the county has the third lowest crime rate in the country and a relatively small population of 500,000.
“If we’re talking about closing police stations and courts in Cumbria and there’s £3 million that isn’t being recovered then this is a serious problem that her Majesty’s Courts enforcement system needs to address,” he added.
While the courts did manage to retrieve £200,000 from offenders since December 2010, the outstanding debt has remained between £3 million and £3.5 million since 2007.
An HMCTS spokesperson said the Government takes the issues of fine enforcement very seriously.
She said: "HMCTS has increased the rate of fine collection every year for the past three years and is on target to do so again this year.
"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."
Cumbria’s Crown Prosecution Service and Cumbria police both declined to comment as they have no involvement in the fines enforcement system.
A spokesperson for national charity Victim Support agreed with Mr Farron that Cumbria’s unpaid fines have the potential to undermine confidence in the justice system.
He said: “There needs to be robust action to tackle this because at the end of the day that money could be going towards the victim. Many victims want to be able to move on and some of that unpaid money is the victim surcharge which goes towards victims and support services.
"Particularly in the case of compensation orders, victims have that constant reminder of what’s happened to them if that money is not paid.”
The county's outstanding costs form part of a £1.9 billion national debt owed the Treasury in unpaid fines, confiscation and compensation orders, and the current administration system has come in for severe criticism from the National Audit Office.
Head of the organisation Amyas Morse said: "I welcome the firther steps planned by the Courts Service and Ministry of Justice to improve the evidence on its financial position."
"However I do recognise that they, and other Government bodies, face significant challenges in improving the extent of available data and on reducing the level of outstanding debt."
In Lancashire courts have an outstanding debt of £12,001, 657.00.