Analysis of the law of Financial Penalities

The fine, a payment imposed as a penalty, is the oldest non custodial penalty available to the courts. Although it was available in the early twentieth century, fines were not issued; this was due to high levels of poverty which meant that offenders could not afford to pay their fines and therefore ended up in prison. 1 Major reforms throughout the following years, modernised the penalty. Fines were allowed to be paid in instalments and this reduced the amount of people who ended up in prison.

This can be seen when comparing the 75,000 people who were put in prison in 1913 and 5300 who were in 1919. The second reform was introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1948, it extended the amount of offences the fine was used for and the fine accounted for 27. 2% of sentences in 1938, after the act, this soared to 44. 8% in 1959. The 1980's bought a period of high unemployment. Magistrates used the fine sentence less because people would not have been able to afford the fees; the usage fell by 10%.

Offenders would instead be sentenced to community service, or in the case of the worse offences, even custodial penalties. The Magistrates Court Act 1980 imposed that the court would have to consider the offenders means, allowing the magistrates to reduce fines if the criminal was poor, it would also prevent fine to be increased if the offender was wealthy. When the fine was used during this period, it tended to be used against the middle class. In Messana2, the defendant was fined i??

20,000, for handling a stolen motorbike worth i?? 11,500; the Court of Appeal later reduced this to i?? 5000. Also in Fairbairn3, the defendant had stolen parcels worth i?? 600-i?? 700 while working for British Rail. He was sentenced to 9 months in prison and fined i?? 7500, again the Court of Appeal reduced this to i?? 1000. The Tory government decided to reform the fine system, the current system was hitting its middle class voters. They introduced the Criminal Justice Act 1991 which bought about the unit fine system.

The system was used in several foreign countries and was given a trial period in four magistrate courts in the late 1980's, the results of which were deemed so successful that the government and majesty implemented the system; this came into power in October 1992. Supporters of the scheme argued that the system combined "simplicity, fairness, clarity, greater precision, effectiveness and consistency"4 The new system which was implemented was based on a mathematical equation.

This aimed to punish all offenders equally, meaning that to a certain degree, all fines could be enforced reasonably, so more fines would be collected by the courts. Every offence was graded by way of its severity; from 1-50, this would be multiplied by the offender's disposable income, which would be worked out via a means assessment form. Within two years the Home Secretary did not hold the same view as the systems supporters, and the system was dropped. This was after pressure from both magistrates and the media. The systems implementation was not that of the pilot scheme.

In the actual system, the price of units went from i?? 3-i?? 20 and i?? 4-i?? 100. This resulted in some absurd rulings which forced the change, "One of the most farcical results was a i?? 1,200 fine – reduced to i?? 48 on appeal – on a man who dropped a crisp packet. "5. Middle class Tory supporters were also being charged with the same fine as millionaires for speeding fines, this was due to the fact that their disposable income was over i?? 100. The best example of the systems inconsistency can be seen when Mr Smith, a pensioner was fined i??

3200 for his first drink driving offence, the same magistrates fined an unemployed man, who was twice over the legal limit only i?? 48. Public opinion and perception was manipulated by the scrutiny and stories written by the tabloids regarding the system. Added to this, the magistrates also resented it. The magistrates who used the system felt that it restricted their independence. There were several public resignations, including that of Paul Gelhart, who used the system to fine an unemployed burglar with seventeen previous convictions, i?? 48.

A survey conducted in North England six months after the system was introduced found that contrary to this, a majority of magistrates preferred the system, and that their unrest lay in its implementation. This was even though 28,000 magistrates throughout the country had undergone long consultation and training prior to the acts implementation in October 19926. The Criminal Justice Act 1993 bought about further reform, this allowed the magistrates more scope in their judgements; due to the new development, the court would have to consider the defendants financial circumstances while making a judgement.

The government stressed in its white paper, "Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public" that's the abolition of the unit fine system was not a retreat from the principle that offenders should be fined according to their financial status, but that they thought that the 1993 act gave the courts leniency to reach this goal. Gavin Dingwall7 writes that there was concern that leaving such discretion to the court would lead to inconsistency, though I see it as the 'middle ground' in the search for equality.

The current practise on fine law is set by Section 164 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, this is a codified version of the 1993 act. It lays out four factors that the magistrates must take into account when making a decision. These are the individuals financial circumstances, the amount of the fine should reflect the seriousness of the offence, take into consideration the circumstances of the offence. 8 Lastly the court has the ability to both increase or reduce the amount of the fine, depending on the offenders financial circumstances, previously with the 1993 act they could only be reduced.

This act may have only been in force since April 2005, but already there has been a government Bill on a proposed reform9, of which section 43(2) suggests a unit fine style system. This opinion is also shared with professionals such as Dr Robin Moore, who suggest a new two stage system. First, there would be a fine for a set for a specified mount of weeks, depending on the seriousness of the offence. Secondly, this amount would be set according to the offender's disposable income, set at a minimum and maximum amount to maintain proportionality for the offence, to allow equal impact but at the same time punish the offender.