Results of the Audit of the Northern Ireland Couts and Tribunals Service Trust Statement for 2011-12
Report to the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Comptroller and Auditor General
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), issued a report today to the Assembly on the results of his first audit of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) Trust Statement (“the Trust Statement”) for 2011-12. The Trust Statement is a new account that records the collection of financial penalties imposed by the Judiciary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA). Prior to the preparation of the Trust Statement, only the receipts and associated expenses were disclosed in NICTS’s main accounts. The key difference now is that the level of outstanding debt is now being reported.
Mr Donnelly said, “I am pleased a reporting structure has been established that brings the significant issue of unpaid fines into the public arena. I welcome this increase in disclosure and accountability. The Trust Statement shows that the level of outstanding fines (£19.3 million) is extremely high when viewed against the annual fine income of £13.8 million. The outstanding balance (£19.3 million) is reduced in the accounts by an amount of £6.5 million that is judged to be irrecoverable. I am alarmed at the high level of fines that are considered irrecoverable. This undermines the credibility of the justice system in using fines as a means to deter crime. The systems for managing and collecting the debt are archaic and no longer fit for purpose. The Criminal Justice Inspector was of a similar view in his reports dating back to 2010 and 2012. I am disappointed that more progress has not been made since these issues were first brought to light.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ), NICTS, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) and Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), under the sponsorship of the Criminal Justice Board, has established a Fine Collection and Enforcement Programme Board to tackle the issues highlighted in the Criminal Justice Inspection Reports which aims to modernise the systems for collecting fines and penalties by 2015.
Mr Donnelly qualified his audit opinion as he was unable to find sufficient evidence to substantiate that material fraud had not occurred during 2011/12 in the collection of cash on outstanding warrants. A warrant can only be collected in cash by PSNI. Cash may have been collected but not lodged and consequently not recorded in the accounting records.
Five recent Judicial Reviews raised concerns over how some warrants have been issued. The court found that the long established practice of automatically issuing a warrant when a fine was not paid was not appropriate and that there should first be a default hearing to allow the defendant to explain why payment was not made. As a result of this judgment all outstanding warrants have been recalled and work is on-going to establish new procedures to bring cases back to court for the purpose of a default hearing.
The five Judicial Review cases have now been referred to the Queen’s Bench Division to consider the issue of liability. This could lead to a significant number of compensation claims from people imprisoned for non-payment. Therefore the loss to the public purse from these warrants not being collected may be further exacerbated through payments becoming due in compensation claims.
Mr Donnelly commented, “Whilst I welcome the establishment of DOJ’s Programme Board, greater urgency is needed in reforming fine default systems, including reducing its vulnerability to fraud or error. It is vital that DOJ restores confidence in this area of the justice system without delay.”
The progress of DOJ’s Programme Board in implementing improvements will be monitored as part of future audits.
- Financial penalties include fixed penalty fines, court imposed monetary penalties and confiscation orders. The majority of revenue collected is paid to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund after deduction of some allowable costs incurred in collecting certain fixed penalties. Revenue collected in the form of compensation and other costs awarded in court are paid to the relevant third party. Fines can be cleared in a number of ways including settlement in full, payment by instalments, clearance through an appeals process, serving a prison term or a decision of the court. Two Supervised Activity Order (SAO) pilot schemes undertaken in Newry and Lisburn provided an alternative means to clear fines have concluded and have been evaluated
- A warrant is a legal instrument issued by a court authorising an officer to carry a judgment into action.
- The Comptroller and Auditor General is Head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (the Audit Office). He and the NIAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of Government Departments and a range of other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to report to the Assembly on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and public bodies use their resources. His reports are published as Assembly papers.
- The report relevant to this Press Release is attached and is published with the 2011-12 NICTS Trust Statement which can be obtained from the NICTS website at http://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Publications/ResourceAccounts/Pages/default.aspx from 10 October 2013.
- Background briefing can be obtained from the Northern Ireland Audit Office by contacting Louise Mason (028 90251048) or Laura Murphy (028 90251139).