Non-payment of court fines up threefold since curbs on jailing

Move to cut numbers jailed led to 31,997 not paying court fines in first 11 months of 2019

The number of people not paying fines has trebled since new legislation was brought in to curb the numbers being jailed for non-payment.

Newly obtained figures show 31,997 people failed to pay court-imposed fines from the start of January to the end of November 2019.

The number is a threefold rise since 2016, when the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act came into force.

Former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald commenced the legislation in January that year, in response to "the inappropriateness of imprisonment as the automatic response" to unpaid fines.


It brought in a number of previously unavailable options for judges to recover money or penalise offenders for non-payment.

Under the laws, judges can make an order for money to be deducted from an offender’s wages, appoint a receiver to recover fines in excess of €500 or impose community service if neither of the first two options work.

Imprisonment is a last resort if none of the other three options can be imposed.

In 2016, 10,505 people failed to pay court-order fines, rising to 27,567 in 2017 and up again to 30,840 in 2018, before rising again last year, the figures show.

In recent weeks, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said Ireland's fines system has "broken down" because the laws introduced four years ago have no mechanism to ensure people turn up in court.

Wage deductions

Court Service figures, obtained by Independent TD Noel Grealish, show 39 people were handed an order deducting fines from their wages since the laws were brought in.

The same number had a receiver appointed to recover the debts, while 824 community service orders have been imposed for non-payment of fines.

Some 1,120 people were handed an imprisonment order since 2016 over unpaid fines, but none of them went to jail, according to Angela Denning, chief executive officer of the Court Service.

The imprisonment orders were made by one court where defendants did not appear, but the State brought applications to set aside the orders “and none of the individuals concerned was subsequently imprisoned”, Ms Denning wrote to Mr Grealish.

Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, said the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act is “clearly deficient and not working”.

“It is failing in practice, as was predicted by the judiciary,” he said. “If imposed fines are not being collected it means there is no deterrent to or punishment for the commission of certain crimes. This undermines the rule of law and needs to be addressed by the next government.”

Mr O’Callagahan said if fines were to be imposed a mechanism must be put in place to ensure they would be paid.

‘Non-custodial punishments’

“We also need to explore new and effective non-custodial punishments for the commission of summary offences,” he added.

Also, over the past three years, there have been more than 20,000 bench warrants handed down by courts over unpaid fines.

Bench warrants are most commonly issued by district courts after a person has failed to appear at a hearing.

Latest figures show more than 4,000 bench warrants issued over unpaid fines remain outstanding.

Speaking at the Irish Times Debate final at Trinity College Dublin at the end of February, Chief Justice Clarke said large numbers of people were being fined in their absences for relatively minor offences.

“They then get a notice telling them to come along to debate what should happen. They don’t turn up,” he said.

“Unless the guards are going to spend all their time going out, executing warrants to arrest people for very minor offences like not paying their TV licence, and not detecting serious crime, then that system won’t work. We said it wouldn’t work. And it isn’t working.”