Debt mountain coming down

A MOUNTAIN of debt owed to Suffolk courts is finally being re-paid, court officials have said.New measures to force criminals in the county to pay up are working and of £2.

A MOUNTAIN of debt owed to Suffolk courts is finally being re-paid, court officials have said.

New measures to force criminals in the county to pay up are working and of £2.9 million imposed in fines in the last financial year, £2.3 million has been paid.

But while Suffolk has been praised for its high collection rate, a new method of counting fines has masked the fact the county is actually now owed more money than it was at the same time last year.

In November, the Star revealed the court system was owed £3.5 million – because unpaid fines from each financial year are carried over into the next.

In the financial year 2002 to 2003, just 69 per cent of fines were paid, but in the year between April 2003 and March 2004, 80 per cent were collected.

But this increase in the collection rate is dampened by the fact a further £2.2 million in unpaid debt has been carried over – meaning criminals owe the county £2.8 million.

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Whilst the figures look impressive and have made the county one of just 11 to have collected between 80 and 90 per cent of fines, a further £700,000 has disappeared because of a new counting method.

Officials decided this year to count money owed in compensation orders, confiscation orders and some other fines in a separate pot.

The total owed to the county at the end of the 2002/2003 financial year was £3,548,858.

When all the money that is now counted elsewhere is added to the fines left over from the 2003/2004 financial year, the true debt owed is £3,558,296, not the £2.8 million originally claimed.

But some good news could be new rules which mean unpaid fines are no longer written off – and are instead pursued until the criminals pay.

Courts minister Christopher Leslie said the collection rate was due to a package of measures designed to get tough on those who fail to pay up.

He said: "A new fines enforcement regime, contained within the Courts Act, came into effect late last year.

"It gave magistrates greater powers to deal more effectively with fine defaulters, particularly those who persistently refuse to pay their debt.

"For instance, fine defaulters can go on a register, similar to a blacklist and details given to credit providers. Their vehicle may be clamped, their fine increased or their debt automatically deducted from their wages or benefits."

Nationally, the amount owed through unpaid fines is down from £500 million in November last year to £354 million in April this year.

Mr Leslie welcomed the overall reduction, which he partly attributed to a new financial incentives package for fines collection staff.

"The high collection rate provides compensation for victims, sends a no-nonsense message to fine defaulters and increases public confidence in the criminal justice system."

nDo you think courts are tough enough about enforcing fines? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail

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