About two-thirds of court fines going unpaid, Minister told

Collection rates sliding as defaulters fail to appear for court enforcement hearings

About two-thirds of fines issued by the courts are going unpaid, Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys has been told.

While reforms led to a decline in numbers imprisoned for non-payment of fines, collection rates have also dropped as defaulters fail to appear for enforcement hearings.

Fines are generally imposed in the District Court for minor offences. And the Minister’s briefing shows that just 35 per cent of them were paid in 2019, down from 55 per cent prior to the changes.

The figure for 2020 was 28 per cent, as of February this year. But some people issued with fines late last year still had time left to pay them.


The Government is examining how to improve the operation of the system with a "high-level group" looking at the United Kingdom where private collection companies have been hired to secure payment.

The briefing outlines how a law aimed at reforming the system of resolving unpaid court fines took effect in January 2016.

Prior to this the sanction for non-payment was a term of imprisonment. These short-term sentences – often involving no real length of time behind bars – accounted for approximately half of all committals in a given year. And officials say the system was regarded as “not only inappropriate, but also ineffective”.

Reforms to the law brought in alternatives: these are attachment orders, where the fine is deducted from a person’s salary; recovery orders, where a receiver is appointed to recover the fine; and community-service orders.

Imprisonment remains a sanction available to the courts, but only in instances where the alternatives are inappropriate – for example, a community service order has not been complied with.

Short-term imprisonment is down 91 per cent, from 9,883 committals in 2015 to just 861 in 2019. However, the officials note “there has been no balancing increase in fine collection, nor has there been a balancing usage of the new alternative orders”.

They add: “This has been primarily driven by almost complete non-compliance, by defaulters, with the new arrangements.”

Loss of revenues

Under the law the alternative orders can only be made once the defaulter is in attendance at an enforcement hearing. Where the defaulter does not attend, the court is left with no option but to reschedule the hearing, or issue a bench warrant for the arrest of the defaulter. The officials cite an estimate that attendance at enforcement hearings has been as low as 10 per cent. They say that the loss of fine payments has been an indirect consequence of this.

A Department of Justice group set up in 2019 has been exploring ways to ensure the policy of minimal prison committals is preserved while maximising the effectiveness of the alternative sanctions. A plan is being worked on that seeks to improve the collection of fines in the short term under the current regime while also proposing longer-term reforms. The briefing says that much of the plan draws on reforms introduced in the early-to-mid 2000s in Scotland where a key objective was to shift the responsibility for managing fine default from the courts and police and on to a civilian fine-collection and enforcement service.

The department did not provide an estimate for revenue lost from unpaid fines. A spokesman said the group will complete its work later this year and that there are “no approved or agreed proposals as yet with regard to the recovery of fines”.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times