UK

Magistrate court fines 'may rise 300%' under new plans

  • 10 June 2014
  • From the section UK
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Vehicles on a motorway
Drivers who speed on motorways could face a fine of up to £10,000 under the new proposals

Maximum fines imposed by magistrates are set to rise dramatically under new proposals for England and Wales.

The highest maximum limits, for offences including motorway speeding, could increase from £2,500 to £10,000.

Other speeding, driving without insurance and selling alcohol to a child could also see increases.

Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said financial penalties "set at the right level" were an effective punishment for offenders.

"Magistrates are the cornerstone of our justice system and these changes will provide them with greater powers to deal with the day-to-day offences that impact their local communities," he added.

His proposals could also see magistrates having unlimited fining powers for offences where there is currently a maximum of £5,000 or more.

Any new legislation would first have to be debated in Parliament but there is no current timetable for any such discussion.

Custody 'option remains'

Most offences that could involve a fine in magistrates' courts are subject to specific maximums, known as levels, which currently range from £200 to £5,000.

Some cases, such as environmental offences, can involve even higher fines.

Magistrates take into account the seriousness of the offence when setting the fine level.

Rupert Lipton, director of the National Motorists Action Group, described the proposals as "disproportionate and draconian".

He said: "I think it will have a serious chilling effect. We will find motorists will be deterred from going to court where they don't believe they are guilty of an offence and there is a potential challenge."

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Analysis

Clive Coleman, BBC legal correspondent

The fact that the maximum fine at level 4 for speeding on a motorway is being increased to £10,000 does not mean that is the sum an offender will have to pay - even if their speeding is at the most serious end of the scale.

Whilst the amount of a fine must reflect the seriousness of the offence, the court must also take into account the financial circumstances of the offender - in other words, their ability to pay.

This applies whether it has the effect of increasing or reducing the fine. Normally a fine should be of an amount that is capable of being paid within 12 months.

The aim is for the fine to have an equal impact on offenders with different financial circumstances.

It should be a hardship but should not force the offender below a reasonable "subsistence" level.

So, someone on benefits caught hurtling down the motorway at excessive speed, is not going to be given a £10,000 fine that they have no realistic prospect of paying.

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But James McLoughlin, from road safety charity Brake, backed tougher penalties for speeding drivers.

He said: "Speed is one of the biggest killers on our roads and, through the support we provide for victims of road crashes, we bear witness to the devastating effects of speeding.

"Limits are there for a reason, and more needs to be done to deter those who choose to put other road users at risk by breaking them."

Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern, which campaigns against alcohol misuse, had reservations about the proposals.

She said: "The proposed increase shows that these offences are being taken seriously, which we welcome, but it's not clear that this will get to the root of the problem and it may be practically difficult to enforce."

The Ministry of Justice said custody would "continue to be used for serious offenders and fines will not become an alternative for those who would otherwise be sent to custody".

Record high

The proposed changes would see:

• The Level 1 fine maximum increase from £200 to £800. Offences which may be dealt with by a Level 1 fine include unauthorised cycle racing on public ways

• Level 2 increases from £500 to £2,000. Offences include driving a motor cycle without a protective helmet

• Level 3 increases from £1,000 to £4,000. Offences include the sale of alcohol to a drunk person or being drunk and disorderly in a public place

• Level 4 increases from £2,500 to £10,000. Offences include speeding on the motorway

Magistrate fines collected at the end of 2012/13 reached a record high of £284m and continued to rise during the last financial year, the Ministry of Justice added.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 allowed magistrates the power to impose unlimited fines for certain offences.

However, the government is only now tabling the appropriate legislation to put that ruling into effect.

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