Money: New Fines to Relate to Income

'Well-paid' Scots will pay higher fines than their poorer counterparts under proposals being considered by 'The Scottish Executive'. Controversial plans for a radical overhaul of the justice system are understood to include levying fines according to the offender's ability to pay. The scheme is set to be introduced in 'summary' cases at 'sheriff courts', covering anything from 'speeding' to 'breach of the peace' and 'assaults'. The idea -- which is also set to be introduced in England & Wales -- was backed in a review of the sheriff court system carried out for 'The Scottish Executive'. It follows concerns that flat-rate fines prove less of a deterrent for the better-off. However, opposition politicians pointed out that the courts already had discretion in setting the level of fines, with 'The Liberal Democrat Party' warning that 'crazy' sums for trivial offences would undermine public confidence in the justice system. Under the proposals for England & Wales -- contained in 'The Management of Offender and Sentencing Bill' -- highly paid people would pay up to three times more in fines: for example, the maximum penalty for failing to give particulars after an accident would jump from 5_000_GBP to 15_000_GBP for a high-earner. This controversial system was tried out in England & Wales more than ten years ago, but was dropped amid 'widespread uproar'.
One 'middle-class' offender was 'stunned' when a court ordered him to pay 1_200_GBP for dropping a crisp packet.
Under 'The Unit Fine System', crimes are awarded a number of 'units' depending on their severity. The amount an offender has to pay for each 'unit' is determined by their income. A source at 'The Scottish Executive' said MSPs were 'one step ahead' of their 'Westminster' counterparts in the legislative process.
Summary courts deal with 130_000 cases a year, with crimes ranging from weapons' offences to 'breaches of the peace'. Tougher sentencing 'powers' to allow the maximum fine in summary courts to be increased four-fold, to 20_000_GBP, are also being proposed. A comprehensive review of summary justice conducted in 2004-03 and chaired by Sheriff Principal, Mr.John Colin Mcinnes, QC included a favourable assessment of unit fines.
The results of a full consultation will be published within weeks.
'The Scottish Executive' source indicated that the idea of 'unit fines' would receive the backing of MSPs.
'You don't appoint these people and not take what they decide seriously, and we have taken this seriously', the source said.
'The Mcinnes Report' 'spelled out' that the system would mean a wealthy person paying much more than someone on a limited income for the same offence.
'This has the effect of the punishment weighing proportionately as heavily on all offenders, thereby achieving greater fairness and equality, openness and public acceptability into the sentencing process', the report stated.
'Unit Fines' are common in a number of other countries, including Australia, Canada and some European states. In the trial in England & Wales, there were difficulties in assessing offenders' income and magistrates felt their power to determine fines had been undermined. However, 'The Mcinnes Report' stated that 'unit fines' should not be dismissed on the basis of the 'short and inadequate trial', which lasted only six months. It stated:
'The committee recommends that a thorough examination of the system should be undertaken in the context of the revised approach to summary justice in Scotland proposed by the committee'.
But opposition politicians were far from convinced by the plan. Mr.Mark Oaten, (MP for Winchester: oatenm@parliament.uk), 'The Liberal Democrat Party's' spokesman on 'Home Affairs', warned it could produce 'crazy fines' which would damage public confidence in the system.
Mark Oaten 'It's better to decide the level of fines on a case-by-case basis than have a central system that could create a great sense of unfairness', he said.
'The Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party' said the 1992 trial had thrown up 'grotesque anomalies'. Of the latest plan, Ms.Annabel Goldie, their justice spokesman and MSP for West of Scotland (annabel.goldie.msp@scottish.parliament.uk), said:
Annabel Goldie MSP 'It will simply be seen as another raft of taxation which has nothing to do with justice. 'People who break the law should have to face sanctions which reflect the gravity of the crime. It should not be done according to some crude financial formula'.
Speaking about the proposals for England & Wales, Mr.David Davis, (MP for Haltemprice & Howden: davisd@parliament.uk), the 'Shadow Home Secretary', said:
David Davis 'This is a cynical attempt by the government to make the "middle classes" pick up the bill for their failure to manage the criminal justice system'.
Mr.John Scott, (info@scottishhumanrightscentre.org.uk) of 'The Scottish Human Rights Centre', said if the changes reduced short-term custodial sentences, then they would be worth trying. The trial a decade ago had been flawed and abandoned because 'the political will wasn't there', he said.
'At the moment there is a huge disparity and inequality in terms of how fines are imposed. The "unit fines system" would be far fairer'.
Mr.Scott said the problems with fines had led to more short-term sentences being imposed 'which do nothing for society, they are a complete waste of time and money' and increased re-offending.
'Prison overcrowding is the single greatest problem facing the justice system and "The Scottish Executive" seems prepared to demonstrate leadership on it', he added.
'Warning of unfair fines under means test justice' Gerri Peeve, The Scotsman, 2005-01-15 Comments to: Annabel Goldie MSP 10 Shuttle St. Renfrewshire: Paisley PA1 1YD Tel: 0141 887 6161 and 0131 348 5662 Fax: 0141 889 0223 and 0131 348 5937


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goldie is right. The punishment should relate to the crime not to the criminal.

1/17/2005 09:18:00 am  

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