New research finds that court fines push people struggling with the cost of living further into debt and worse mental health

16 May 2024
New research undertaken by the Centre for Justice Innovation shows that criminal court fines have a disproportionate impact on people already struggling to make ends meet and which feel impossible to pay off. The courts in England and Wales aim to ensure that fines have an equal impact on people regardless of their financial circumstances, but the Centre’s research shows that people on low-to-middle incomes end up with poor financial and mental health outcomes.

The research highlights that a large proportion of the offences for which court fines are given are strongly linked to people’s poverty, such as TV licence evasion or not paying the bus fare. As part of the research, the Centre interviewed 56 people on low incomes sentenced to fines who reported that:

The financial burden that fines place on people on low incomes often pushes them further into debt. Some reported taking on high interest credit, having to skip meals and use food banks and going into rent arrears to pay off their fine.

“What am I going to cut back on? Because if I’m going to cut back on food, I’m going to be hungry. If I cut back on my rent, I’m going to get in debt.”

 The imposition of additional charges alongside the fine, such as prosecution costs, often doubled the amount that was owed to the court. This could leave people feeling like it was impossible to pay off their debt in the given timeframe. In one case, a single mother reported being stuck in a debt loop of not having enough income in benefits to cover her and her children’s living costs, getting a job, being charged with fraud for not declaring her employment, and then being given a court fine as a result.

The financial impact of the court fine took a severe toll on people’s mental and physical health, particularly where they faced prolonged payment periods in what felt like never-ending cycle of payments.

“It was just making me feel paranoid… knowing that I had that to pay every month, it was just a big weight on my shoulders.”

 The system fails to adequately consider people’s financial situation in a way that is accurate and consistent. Some people were asked on the spot in court what they could afford, while others did not have any discussion about their finances at all.

“ The only thing they go off is your salary, but they don’t know if you’re in debt or they don’t know if you’re struggling to get by.” 

 The enforcement of court fines through bailiffs left people feeling harassed and in a constant state of fear and dread. 

“If they [the bailiffs] come in, what are they going to actually take? There’s nothing here. I can remember thinking at the time, ‘What if they take my bed? What if they take my TV?”

 Many of the people we spoke to felt that a fine was an appropriate punishment for the offence they committed, but both the total amount they eventually needed to pay and the confusing processes they had to go through left them feeling unfairly treated. 

 Discussions with magistrates highlighted that they often feel like sentencing legislation leaves them with no option but to fine people who are unemployed or even homeless, even though they know they won’t be able to pay. Some felt that they regularly have to do this, even though they worry it may increase the risk of the person committing another offence.

The research calls for reform of the fines system, both to fix these clear injustices and to avoid the legitimacy of the justice system being undermined. Over the coming year, the Centre will be working with policymakers, practitioners and people with lived experience to develop detailed proposals to build a better framework for setting fines— one more responsive to people’s financial circumstances, which places affordability and proportionality at its centre, and provides clear alternatives for those who cannot afford to pay anything.

Phil Bowen, Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said: “Last year, our criminal courts handed down well over three-quarters of a million court fines. Our research strongly suggests that, in too many cases, instead of addressing the causes of crime, we simply exacerbate the problem— imposing financial penalties on people struggling to make ends meet, pushing some into even more offending. We need to rethink how we respond in a way which prevents more people becoming victims of crime in the future.”

Damon Gibbons, Chief Executive of the Centre for Responsible Credit, said: “Both the level at which fines are set, and the repayments expected of people on low incomes, are far too high. Enforcement procedures are also inflexible. This is exacerbating poverty and creating additional costs for the taxpayer, for example by negatively impacting health. The evidence presented in this report makes it clear that a major overhaul is now required.”

Vivienne Jackson, Programme Manager at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said: “Not paying for your TV license, or a bus ride, or avoiding car tax, is very strongly linked to poverty. The system needs to change so that courts can properly support people to pay a proportionate fine or make things right another way without getting trapped in a system that makes vulnerable people unwell and indebted.”

Read the report

Read the executive summary