Tougher rules making a dent in millions owed for traffic fines

By Mathew Dearnaley

The Government introduced a more punitive regime in 2014 for motorists refusing to pay traffic fines. Photo / Michael Cunningham
The Government introduced a more punitive regime in 2014 for motorists refusing to pay traffic fines. Photo / Michael Cunningham

More than 300 drivers have had their licences suspended under a government crackdown on more than half a billion dollars in unpaid traffic-related fines.

Although total fines now owed by 485,000 offenders have eased to $433.6 million, they stood at $554.4 million at the end of 2013.

That was just before the Government introduced a punitive new regime in February 2014 for motorists refusing to pay up for speeding and other traffic offences - even down to parking infringements if pursued through the courts.

Justice Ministry collections chief Bryce Patchell has told the Herald in response to an Official Information Act request that 310 drivers have had their licences suspended under regime stop orders.

But the regime got off to a slow start, as only 19 were issued in 2014, with all but four in December.

The other 291 were imposed on drivers over the 10 months between January 1 and October 31 of 2015.

Mr Patchell said in his OIA response that 232 drivers had cleared their fines or paid reparation under threat of stop orders, and 7717 others had signed up to payment plans to protect their licences.

Only 139 licences remained suspended at the end of October.

Extra enforcement action, including arrest warrants or property seizure, had been taken against 45 debtors who failed to pay up even after having their licences suspended.

That was likely to have included some who owed additional fines which were not traffic-related.

"This initiative has proven highly successful," Mr Patchell said.

"We have received a lot of feedback from people owing fines that the threat of losing their licence is what brought them to address their outstanding fines by either paying in full or setting up a payment plan."

But the amount collected as a direct result of the new regime - just over $5 million - has been modest compared with other measures.

Enhanced data-matching by his collections staff with Inland Revenue Department and Social Development Ministry records had been "extremely successful" in reaping $77.7 million in fines in the financial year to June 2014.

We have received a lot of feedback from people owing fines that the threat of losing their licence is what brought them to address their outstanding fines.
Bryce Patchell, Justice Ministry collections chief

Law changes had also enabled information about outstanding fines to go to credit-reporting agencies.

And a revised operating model introduced in 2011 to increase voluntary payments and take action earlier against sluggards was saving about $2 million in annual operating costs.

But despite those measures, and the reduction in arrears, the number of drivers still owing fines has risen from 456,331 on December 31, 2013.

Mr Patchell said that before suspending a driver's licence, the ministry would send a warning letter, in addition to any notices received already from the courts.

"The person will be given the opportunity to pay the traffic fines or reparation from the traffic offence in full, or to set up a payment plan and avoid losing their licence," he said.

Former Courts Minister Chester Borrows, now National's Deputy Speaker, said in 2013 when announcing the new regime that it would apply only to people who ignored repeated 28-day deadlines for paying fines.

It still gave people about four months after their ticketing to pay up, which Mr Borrows said was "not bad, and that's interest-free credit".

- NZ Herald

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