Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Unpaid fines crackdown cuts backlog

$510 million of court fines are converted to home detention or community service.

Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

More than $500 million of unpaid fines and reparation has been remitted by judges in the last five years - with just over half the cases converted to community work or home detention.

A Justice Ministry crackdown has seen the unpaid fines total drop to 25 per cent over three years to $591m - the lowest since 2004 - but unpaid reparation creep up to nearly $92m in the last financial year.

Of the $591 million owed in fines, 90 per cent are infringement fees mainly for traffic offences.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act show district court judges have remitted between $81m and $138m annually since the 2007/08 financial year for a total of $510m over the last five years.

A spokesman said the Justice Ministry cannot comment on judicial decisions but said remittals are only considered when fines have been unable to be collected and enforcement is unlikely to be successful.

A judge or community magistrate can remit a fine and order an alternative penalty such as community work or home detention.

Over the past five years, 54 per cent of fines remitted had an alternative sentence imposed.

The single largest remittal was $800,100 in 2004 when the company was in liquidation and unable to pay.

Other reasons to remit include when a person is deceased or the victim is paid reparation directly and the court needs to correct its records. A Deputy Registrar can remit small outstanding balances less than $5.

While the total of unpaid fines is the lowest in eight years, the figures show unpaid reparation - ordered by the courts to victims of crime as part of a criminal sentencing - increased from $72 million to $92 million over the past five years.

The Ministry spokesman said "collecting is a priority for the court".

"Awarding reparation is a judicial decision and reparation is generally for larger amounts than fines meaning it can take longer to pay. In some circumstances a judge may also send someone to prison when awarding reparation which can also delay the collection process."

Since August, a judge can impose imprisonment or home detention if the offender fails to make reparation payments to the victim.

If a person has both unpaid fines and reparation, the Justice Ministry spokesman said the payments would be allocated to the victim first.

Nearly 150 people were stopped by police at the airport - either departing or arriving - in the most recent financial year, with $265,607 paid and arrangements made to repay another $623,882.


The numbers

$510m in unpaid fines and reparation remitted over 5 years.

$591m in unpaid fines, the lowest since 2004.

90 per cent are infringement notices, mostly traffic offences.

$92m in unpaid reparations, increased from $72m over 5 years.

400 people stopped at the border because of unpaid fines in past 4 years.


Cracking down

By November next year, driving licences can be suspended if a person has unpaid traffic-related fines or reparation.

Credit check of fines

Allows credit reporting agencies to consider a person's outstanding fines and reparation when assessing credit history. It also allows the Justice Ministry to obtain any contact details provided to help with enforcement. By the end of August, more than 200,000 checks were made and $1.9m unpaid fines collected. A further $6.9m was placed under a payment arrangement.

- NZ Herald

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