In the Media

?1.4bn in court fines written off

PUBLISHED December 16, 2011

The courts are expecting to write off a total of £1.4 billion in outstanding punitive fines as uncollectable.

The figure is the bulk of the current outstanding sum in unpaid fines of £1.9 billion, an auditors? report on the HM Courts Service has found.

But even these figures are uncertain as the Courts Service was unable to provide proper accounting records ? because of the defects in its computer system, the National Audit Officer (NAO) concluded yesterday.

The damning findings means that Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General is unable to approve the accounts on fines collection as accurate.

The report highlights how limitations in Libra, the case management IT system in use across magistrates? courts and similar systems, have contributed towards the Courts Service being unable to provide information to support its accounts.

The total outstanding debt for fines, confiscation orders and penalties at the end of March 2011, according to the Courts Service, was £1.9 billion, which is up from £1.5 billion the previous year.

But of that, only £457 million is recognised as receivable, the report says. The £1.4 billion is the Courts Service?s managers? own estimate of what fines are at risk of being uncollected but the NAO takes the view that the figures cannot be relied on.

Ms Morse said: ?Because of limitations in the underlying systems, HM Courts Service has not been able to provide me with proper accounting records relating to the collection of fines, confiscation orders and penalties.

?I have therefore disclaimed my audit opinion on its trust statement accounts.? The Courts Service and Ministry of Justice have made some recent improvements to the collection of fines, confiscation orders and penalties that are imposed by courts and the police.

These include new performance measures to monitor collection rates, timeliness and levels of arrears for fines; developments in enforcement and collection procedures and additional work with other government bodies to maximise recovery.

But they have told the NAO that they may not be able to address the accounting records problem fully until Libra and other systems are significantly enhanced or replaced.

Margaret Hodge, MP, who chairs the Committee of Public Accounts, said: ?It is really worrying that HM Courts and Tribunals Service can?t produce basic financial records. HM Courts Service is responsible for collecting fines and penalties, but we can?t tell if this money is accounted for properly.?