There is, however, a seedier side to the imposition and collection of fines. Two cases spring to mind. I was once sitting in a London Magistrates' Court waiting for my case to get called on and, whilst waiting, was watching a number of cases that involved unrepresented defendants. The first was a lady who pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis. She was fined £125, ordered to pay £85 in costs and the £15 victim surcharge was imposed. She was in receipt of Jobseeker's Allowance. "The full amount is due now" the legal advisor said. "I can't pay that much now" the lady replied. "Can it be deducted from my benefits?" "How much money do you have on you?" asked the Chair. I can't remember how much it was, but it amounted, so the lady said, to her bus fair. "Well you can pay that in to Court and you'll have to walk home or get a lift". The lady protested that she didn't know anybody and that it was far too far to walk home. She was then told that if she refused to pay her fare into Court she would be taken down into the cells. She burst into tears. Still the Chair and the Legal Advisor persisted that this £2.80 or whatever it was should be handed over. The tears got worse and enough was enough. "Please excuse me, but as an officer of the Court please could I address you?" I said. The Chair permitted it. I proceeded, politely but forcefully, to explain that what was going on here was pretty disgraceful. The lady was in tears, the Court was trying to seize £2.80 and was having no regard for how this lady was going to get home. Perhaps, I thought to myself, they would like her to commit fare evasion or theft? The Bench relented and agreed to take the money from the lady's benefits. The Legal Advisor looked most dissatisfied but there we are.
The second occasion involved an actual client. I was in a Magistrates' Court in Essex. My client had been convicted of assaulting a police officer. She was fined £75 but ordered to pay full prosecution costs (which were about £600) and, of course, the £15 victim surcharge. The Bench had taken umbrage with her because the nature of the assault was a spit (something many Magistrates seem to despise with a passion) and they felt that the evidence was overwhelming (i.e. the officer's word against hers) and so penalised her accordingly. This was despite the fact that she was a single mother living on benefits (namely Child Benefit, Housing Benefit and Tax Credits). She certainly was in no position to pay just short of £700 there and then but that didn't stop the Bench trying to get it. Their opening gambit was to (somewhat unrealistically) threaten her with prison. I managed to bat that one away without too much of a struggle. However, they then wanted to see her purse (she having said she had no money in it). To the client's credit, she duly provided it. There was nothing in it. Not content with that, the Bench made the point that they could have her searched by the dock officer. I confess that my patience was slowly deteriorating. I interjected again. After a bit of toing and froing they relented. However, they were not going to give up that easily. "Go to the bank" said the Chair "and get a receipt to show how much is in your account." There was then a rather unfortunate exchange between the client and the Chair but she duly went to the bank and produced a receipt. She had about £85 in the bank. "Well, we'll take that today" said the Chair. "You may have forgotten" I said politely "that Mrs X has two small children that she has to provide for". They seemingly had not forgotten but as seems to happen all too often the Chair came out with the line "well she will have to find somebody else who can either pay the fine or pay for the children- a friend or family member perhaps." I felt like screaming "HOW IS IT A FRIEND OR FAMILY MEMBER'S PROBLEM?". I didn't of course but it really gets to me when Magistrates expect the money to come from someone else. Why on earth should some poor person who has nothing to do with the case have to fork out the money? Anyway, this whole sorry episode went on for about half a day (won't somebody please think of the
Sadly these little incidents are not uncommon and it is usually people who are unrepresented who bear the brunt of them. So in short I have two general issues as regards the imposition of fines- (i) do the associated administrative costs in administering and collecting them outweigh the amounts involved? and (ii) please can we have a little bit more humanity when it comes to time to pay and not behave like some sort of extortion racket?
Answers on a postcard please.