The latest headline in legal news is that Magistrates’ powers to fine defendants are set to rise. However, as is often the case, the headlines don’t reveal the full picture.
At present, the maximum the Magistrates’ Court can fine a defendant is £5,000. However, some offences have a statutory maximum fine, which is less than this.
Under the latest government proposals, the maximum fine limit of £5,000 would be lifted and Magistrates’ would be able to impose unlimited fines. In addition, the maximum fines for the offences which are currently subject to statutory limits of less than £5,000 would be increased fourfold.
What’s the reason for this dramatic increase in Magistrates’ abilities to fine? It has been suggested that the government see financial penalties as more cost effective and less resource intensive than community penalties and, by increasing the fines that can be imposed, it will encourage more widespread use of this sentencing option. It may also be that, at present, the current maximum fine of £5,000 would not have a significant impact on a well-heeled defendant and it is hoped that greater fines available to the Magistrates would permit them to punish that type of defendant more severely.
However, statistics suggest that only 1% of fines imposed by the Magistrates are at or close to the maximum amount. Furthermore, courts wishing to fine defendants over £5,000 have the ability in some cases to commit the matter to the Crown Court, which already has unlimited fining powers.
These new sentencing powers for the Magistrates’ Court are only proposals at this stage, and the new legislation is yet to be debated in Parliament. Importantly, and what has not been widely covered by the media, is that though the Magistrates may in due course be given the power to impose higher fines, the manner by which fines are calculated hasn’t changed; the Magistrates will still consider their Sentencing Guidelines when passing sentence and will consider the defendant’s financial means (in most cases net weekly income) and ability to pay when deciding the level of fine to impose. Therefore, for now at least, the new proposals are unlikely to affect many defendants.
Link to BBC News website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27774455