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Your Guide to Court Debt and Fines

Dealing with court fines and debts can be quite different to handling your other debts.

For most people, borrowing or getting into a credit or finance agreement is a choice – but few people choose to receive a court fine. If you do, it can be difficult to understand exactly what’s expected of you, who you can talk to for advice or what happens if you can’t pay.

In this guide, we’ll take you through some important information about court debts and fines, including:

  • What court debts and fines are
  • The different types of court debts and fines
  • Preparing a budget if you’re appearing in court
  • What happens if you can’t or don’t pay

What are court fines and debts

Court fines and debts are usually a punishment for breaking a law, in fact, fines and financial penalties are the most common type of punishment that’s handed out by courts in the UK.

In many cases, there’s no set amount or level of fine for a particular crime. The court will usually decide on the amount based on the offence that’s been committed, how serious the offence was – and your financial circumstances.

The different types of court fine and debt

Although you might think of ‘breaking the law’ to mean more serious crime – the term really covers everything from parking tickets and minor motoring offences upward. As such, the fines you receive can relate to fairly wide range of different offences, including:

  • Parking and motoring fines and debt: Including fixed penalty notices (FPNs), penalty charge notices (PCNs) and money owed to private companies who manage parking on private land (such as hospitals, airports, supermarkets – and so forth).

You will normally be expected to pay these fines within 28 days. You may find yourself in court if you wish to appeal the parking fine – or don’t pay within this timeframe.

  • Criminal Fines: This type of fine can relate to any criminal offence – although tends to feature only for less serious crimes and is intended to act as a deterrent, so the person doesn’t commit the same crime again.

Criminal fines are often used when a person commits an less serious offence for the first time and can sometimes accompany unpaid community work.

  • Magistrates’ court fines and debt: Although it’s often a magistrates’ court who imposes criminal fines, this isn’t the only type of fine or debt that they can enforce. Magistrates’ courts will handle cases where people have failed to pay council tax, child support arrears and TV licences.

Assuming the person appearing in court is found to be in the wrong, a payment schedule will be set up for these things then policed by the courts system.

What happens if I’m due to appear in court

If you’re appearing in court and expect that your punishment could include a fine, it’s worth putting together a simple budget that shows what you’re able to pay.

Often, you won’t be expected to pay a fine in full – and certainly not on the day – which means you can come to an affordable arrangement. A fine is a punishment – but the courts understand that you still have to be able to eat and keep a roof over your head.

While courts can be somewhat understanding with finances, they won’t have the opportunity to do so if you don’t appear – and any fine imposed can often be higher if you’re not there to offer some information on your finances. Your budget won’t be read aloud to the entire court, so there’s no need to worry about financial privacy – and it can help a favourable decision to be made.

Putting together a simple court budget plan

Don’t worry, the court isn’t expecting to see you running your finances perfectly, that’s not what looking at a budget is about – it’s simply about making sure the fine is appropriate and can be repaid.

To help with this decision you can take some fairly simple steps toward creating a budget:

  1. Add up all of your incomings

This isn’t usually a big job – add up the wages and benefits you have coming into your house or your account.

  1. Add up your essential outgoings

‘Essential’ outgoings are any which you cannot reasonably live without – so, mortgage, rent, utilities bills, weekly food costs, travel costs for work, school uniform costs – and so forth. Repayment of current debts, credit cards and overdrafts should go into this category too.

  1. Work out ‘non-negotiable’ outgoings

While things like mobile phone contracts and gym memberships might not be ‘essential’ – there’s a chance you’ve signed a contract – which means you have to pay for these things for a set period of time. If you’ve got an outgoing that you’re tied into, it should go into the ‘non-negotiable’ category.

  1. Work out your ‘disposable’ income

When you have figures for ‘essential’ and ‘non-negotiable’ outgoings you should take those amounts away from your overall income figure. This leaves you with a figure that the court will consider to be your ‘disposable’ income. It might be a small amount, it might be more – but this figure is important as it helps the court understand exactly how much money you potentially have left over each month.

Getting your budget right

We’d strongly suggest keeping all the information you’ve used to create this budget – whether that’s letters, statements, account screenshots – and so on. You don’t have to have complicated spreadsheets or pages of information about your finances – but it helps to be able to prove your figures are right if you’re asked.

It’s also important to be as accurate as possible. Miscalculating could lead the court to set higher fines – or impose a harsher fine if they feel you’ve not been totally upfront with your finances.

Paying a court fine

If it is decided that you will pay a fine, the court will issue a ‘collection order’ that details exactly how much there is to pay and when it should be paid. You’ll normally find one of the 4 following options on your collection order:

  • Payment in full (with a deadline for payment)
  • Weekly or monthly instalments toward the overall amount
  • An attachment of earnings (meaning payment will be taken directly from your wages)
  • A benefits deduction (meaning that payment will be taken directly from any benefits you receive)

Your collection order will also have contact details for the court officer that you’ll need to speak to if you have any issues with the payment terms. There are situations where the fine amount or terms can be changed, but it happens very infrequently – and it’s a difficult and long process to go through.

What happens if you can’t or won’t pay?

It’s perfectly possible that you may find yourself in a position where you can’t or simply don’t want to pay what’s been set by the court. It’s important to have an understanding of what each of those situations can mean for you.

If you know your financial circumstances mean you won’t be able to pay, even if you want to, you should speak to the fines officer at the issuing court to explain your situation as soon as you can. Again, the court doesn’t want to leave you unable to put food on the table, so they will talk to you about what’s happened and offer the appropriate advice.

Remember, it’s always better to talk to a fines officer before you miss a payment, rather than calling them afterwards.

Won’t pay?

‘Can’t pay’ and ‘won’t pay’ are viewed very differently by the courts – and much sterner action is taken against people who appear to be simply refusing to pay court fines or debts.

If you decide you won’t pay a fine or debt through the court, you’re likely to find the situation escalates very quickly. Action will often include:

  • Sending bailiffs to visit your home and potentially recover money or goods to pay toward your debt
  • Applying for a ‘charging order’ which secures the debt against your home
  • Putting an attachment of earnings in place that means your employer pays part of your wages directly to the court

Not only are these actions likely to occur, but your case could be referred back to the court with a view toward taking further measures against you. These measures could include:

  • Increasing the amount of the fine
  • Ordering you to do additional unpaid community work additional to any originally ordered
  • Imposing a custodial prison sentence, either to serve immediately – or suspended, pending appropriate conduct going forward

How likely is prison as a result of unpaid fines or debts?

While prison is a possibility for people who don’t pay court debts and fines, it’s always a last-resort of the issuing court.

In fact, the amount of people sent to prison because of unpaid fines and debts is very low – and this level of punishment is reserved only for people who repeatedly avoid paying fines and when the money cannot be recovered any other way.

While prison is unlikely, it’s not impossible – so seeking appropriate legal advice before going to court is important.

Overall

While every court fine and subsequent debt is likely to be slightly different and based on your unique circumstances, there are some points that are important to remember.

  • If you’re summoned to court, it’s always best to go – without you there, the fine set could be unmanageable – and it’s hard to contest it further down the line.
  • If you appear in court, it’s very useful to have a pre-written budget that will help the court decide how much you can afford to pay.
  • If you think you’re going to miss a payment, talk to the court fines officer as soon as you can.
  • If you don’t want to pay, consider your action very carefully – increased fines and bailiff costs can mount up very quickly, turning relatively small costs into extremely large debts and your goods being seized.
  • You should always consider legal representation if you’re going to appear in court, especially if you’re charged with a serious crime or could face imprisonment.

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