04 June 2014

Unpaid Fines

Victoria's Sentencing Advisory Council has released a 432 page report The Imposition and Enforcement of Court Fines and Infringement Penalties in Victoria [PDF].

The report argues that round 40% of Victorians and 36% of companies that receive court fines fail to pay them. Over 700,000 penalties relating to  infringement notices issued by agencies such as police and local governments each year remain unpaid. Around 6 million infringement notices were issued in 2012–13. The amount of unpaid penalties is estimated as over $400 million per year.

An unrelated 2013 state Ombudsman Office report on its Own motion investigation into unenforced warrants [PDF] was noted here.

The Sentencing Council concludes that "the current system is fragmented and creates avoidable obstacles to payment and enforcement". It recommends a range of new sanctions to deal with the large number of unpaid and unenforced fines and infringement penalties under the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) and Infringements Act 2006 (Vic).

The Council examined the use and enforcement of fines and infringements according to different types of recipient, including those who
  • 'shouldn’t pay' (e.g. people who have a valid defence to an infringement notice), 
  • 'can’t pay' (e.g. people experiencing financial hardship), 
  • 'will pay',
  • 'might pay',
  • 'won’t pay' (e.g. people or companies who can pay but deliberately avoid payment and enforcement). 
It calls for stronger enforcement options for people and companies who can afford to pay but refuse. The report calls for a wider range of options for payment and discharge by disadvantaged people, aimed at allowing their early exit from the system, and preventing the most vulnerable Victorians from having to go to court.

The Council indicates that the three main principles for an effective system of fines and penalties are fairness, compliance, and credibility.

Those principles are reflected in 49 recommendations, including
  • creating a centralised body to case manage and enforce fine and penalty recipients; 
  • harmonising enforcement sanctions and extending a broader range of sanctions for the enforcement of court fines, including licence suspension, detention and sale of vehicles, seizure and sale of personal property, attachment of earnings and debts, and registration of a charge over, and sale of, real estate; 
  • consulting with the Commonwealth Government on overseas travel restrictions for people with outstanding default warrants; 
  •  taking outstanding warrants into account during the taxi driver/operator accreditation process; 
  • introducing a scheme to reduce the large volume of tolling infringement penalties accrued by offenders who won’t pay, by taking them to court earlier; 
  • making directors personally liable for payment of infringement penalties or court fines incurred by a corporation; 
  • consulting with the Commonwealth Government on the collection of fines and penalties by the Australian Tax Office; 
  • improving options for vulnerable and disadvantaged people, such as work and development permits (allowing eligible people to complete education, treatment, or training programs as a way of discharging fines and penalties), amending the definition of ‘special circumstances’ for those people who ‘shouldn’t pay’, and providing a reduced infringement penalty for those people experiencing financial hardship who ‘can’t pay’ and are entitled to government concessions; 
  • reducing infringement penalty amounts for children to 50% of the adult amount; and 
  • strengthening safeguards so that imprisonment is a penalty of ‘last resort’ for failure to pay fines, reserved for those people who can, but refuse, to pay.
The report notes that the Sentencing and Infringements statutes provide for separate systems of enforcement that overlap in a number of ways (e.g. if a person elects to have the infringement matter determined in open court, the matter will be treated the same as if it had commenced in court).
The fragmented nature of the two enforcement systems, as they currently apply, is highlighted where a person has both court fines and infringement penalties. In these circumstances, methods and locations for payment, availability of non-monetary options for discharge, obligations and powers of the Sheriff, court powers on default, court powers on breach of an order made on default, and rights of appeal, all differ between court fines and infringement penalties. Where possible, practical, and preferable to do so, the recommendations  have sought to harmonise the two systems.
This report presents aggregated data from sources such as
  • the Magistrates’ Court Courtlink system and associated Cognos data extracts (court fine imposition, infringement penalty enforcement data, case initiation data, court fine payment data, warrant enforcement, community work for fine default, and imprisonment-in-lieu data); 
  • the Department of Justice’s Higher Courts’ Conviction Returns Database (court fine imposition for the County and Supreme Courts of Victoria); 
  • the Children’s Court Courtlink system and associated Cognos data extracts (court fine imposition, case initiation data, court fine payment data, warrant enforcement, and enforcement hearing sanctions data); 
  • the Children’s Court Children’s and Young Persons Infringement Notice System (‘CAYPINS’) Courtlink system and associated Cognos data extracts (CAYPINS infringement imposition, case initiation data, CAYPINS payment data, warrant enforcement, and enforcement hearing sanctions data); 
  • the Infringement Management and Enforcement Services (IMES) (infringement penalty enforcement data and internal review data); 
  • Corrections Victoria (community work order data, community work permit data, and receptions into prison data); 
  • the Australian Bureau of Statistics (CPI data, interstate court comparisons data, and population data); 
  • the Commonwealth Department of Social Services (concession cards and income support payment data); and 
  • the Council’s own reoffending database. 
The report is divided into 10 chapters:
1) Introduction 
2) Use of court fines 
3) Use of infringement penalties 
4) Harmonising payment and management of court fines and infringement penalties 
5) Enforcement by the administrative body 
6) Enforcement by the court 
7) Conversion of fines and penalties into imprisonment 
8) Infringement matters heard in open court, proportionality, and internal review 
9) Tolling infringement offences 
10) Imposition and enforcement of court fines and infringement penalties against children.