Does the Ministry of Justice Need to Spend £675m on a Project to Collect Outstanding Fines? by Colin Cram

Posted on May 10, 2013


How often should major projects never have been started? I can think of several and there may be another about to start. The Ministry of Justice is planning to spend £675m ($1bn) on a compliance and enforcement project/contract to collect outstanding fines which, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation last year, amount to almost £2bn, including confiscation orders. According to a Ministry of Justice response in 2011 to a Freedom of Information request from a Mr Mark Wild, the value of fines written off in the previous 5 years was nearly £550m.

A recent incident caused me to question the need for this project. I received a call for help from someone in a part of the country where I used to live.  The bailiffs were due to go to their house the following day to remove possessions for an unpaid fine. I offered to try to get the matter sorted out.

The response to Mark Wild included a copy of parts of the contracts between the Ministry of Justice and with providers of bailiff services.  Appendix C to the specification stresses that enforcement efforts should focus on first time compliance, rather than reacting to default. I was therefore curious why, in the case in which I became involved, matters appeared to have drifted for nearly 2 years. I telephoned the court and then followed a trail of various telephone numbers and recorded messages to be dealt with eventually by an extremely helpful person who, although pointing out that it was not the work of the Magistrates Court, provided advice and information and agreed to help sort things out.

The system for paying and collecting fines appears to work something like this. For many offences, the offender need not attend court, but can plead guilty by letter. They are sent a notice informing them how to pay the fine. If they attend court, are fined, cannot pay the full amount and are in receipt of social security benefits, they can authorise payment through deductions from benefits. If they simply plead guilty by letter, deductions from benefits cannot be made. You can guess the rest. People who plead guilty by letter can get into a vicious spiral of fines on fines, bailiffs fees, removal of possessions, more fines for non-payment if the value of possessions is inadequate ad infinitum. This seems to be an automatic process as, if a person pleads guilty by letter, the courts do not take a person’s circumstances into account in decisions on the best way to collect the fine.

It may therefore be that a significant proportion of outstanding fines results from the way the system works. Rather than insisting that people attend court, which may be many miles away and which may be unaffordable or impracticable for many people, particularly those with a physical or mental disability, there should be a better way to obtain agreement on how to pay the fine.

What has this to do with procurement?  One of the principles that I have applied to procurement organisations that I have created or taken over is to identify all of the factors in the supply chain and within one’s own organization, which create cost and risk, and eliminate them.  This is one of the foundations of ‘lean’.  Applying it to the issues I have experienced and identified should reduce the value of outstanding fines, cut court administration costs, prevent a low income person from having to pay high bailiffs fees and reduce the number of families who lose their possessions.  The only people who would lose out would be the bailiffs.  It might also mean that expenditure of £675m on a major project could be avoided.

Ministry of Justice fine collection initiative; both penny and pound foolish?

Ministry of Justice fine collection project: both penny and pound foolish?


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