On 10 June 2014, the Government published a draft statutory instrument (an order made by the government upon permission of an Act of Parliament) to raise the levels of fines in the Magistrates’ Court.
This had been in the offing for some time.
In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government enacted a provision to remove the cap – currently at £5,000 – on the level of fines imposed by a Magistrates’ Court.
What are the changes?
In essence, fines rise 300%. The current scale is as follows:
Level 1 £200
Level 2 £500
Level 3 £1,000
Level 4 £2,500
Level 5 £5,000
They will increase to:
Level 1 £800 (e.g. not exhibiting an excise licence)
Level 2 £2,000 (e.g. railway fare evasion)
Level 3 £4,000 (e.g. using or keeping an unlicensed vehicle)
Level 4 £10,000 (e.g. failure to produce an insurance certificate or speeding on a motorway)
Level 5 Unlimited (e.g. defective brakes on a goods vehicle)
This does not apply to children and as such the maximums will remain at £250 (under 14) and £1,000 (under 18)
There are exceptions such as importing goods in contravention of prohibitions or restrictions etc. under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 and knowingly misusing marked oil under the Hydrocarbon Oil Duties Act 1979. See Schedule 1 of the draft SI for the full list.
Schedule 2 substitutes sums for those offences excluded from the rise. The two offences listed immediately above have their maximums increased to £20,000.
The increase will not affect cases where the offence was committed before the commencement of the section.
Will the changes have a big impact?
Fines have to be proportionate to the offence, but also are measured by the offender’s ability to pay the fine. For example, if you earn £400 per week after tax, a fine of £10,000 for speeding on the motorway is likely to be considered grossly disproportionate to the offence, but also wrong in principle based on your ability to pay – it would take months and months for you to pay that fine.
So what is the result? Either, fines increase and the courts will be imposing fines which represent a greater proportion of an offender’s weekly income (thereby making fines more onerous) – with the result being that many will be unable to pay and are consequently sent to prison in default of payment of the fine, increasing the already bulging prison population, at greater expense – or the level of fines imposed won’t really increase, save for those of very high net worth such as celebrities and footballers.
That is so until the Sentencing Council revises the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (see numbered page 148, or 165 of the PDF) which provides the guidance on the level of fines in particular cases. This is based on a percentage of relevant weekly income.
What is relevant weekly income? “Where an offender is in receipt of income from employment or is self-employed and that income is more than £110 per week after deduction of tax and national insurance (or equivalent where the offender is self-employed), the actual income is the relevant weekly income.”
So until that guidance is revised, don’t expect the levels of fine to rise, save in those exceptional cases.
We’ll update you as and when the change is brought into force.