Ministry of Justice: Performance of the Collections Unit in collecting and enforcing fines.

The Collections Unit of the Ministry of Justice collects and enforces fines. Most fines arise from infringement notices when people do not pay the fee imposed by the issuing authority. The Collections Unit also collects fines imposed by a District Court, when someone is convicted of an offence.

This audit sought to assure Parliament that the Ministry of Justice, through the Collections Unit, has effective arrangements in place to collect and enforce fines.

Our findings

In our view, the Collections Unit does have effective arrangements in place. It actively assesses its working environment and how that environment is likely to change. The Collections Unit focuses not only on fines collection, but also identifies emerging opportunities and risks.

Collection rates are improving. However, unpaid fines have continued to increase in number and amount. No single strategy is likely to check this growth and the Collections Unit must continue to adapt and improve its business. The Collections Unit has, or is implementing, a number of strategies in response. It continues to focus on new fines, and has improved its data matching and its ability to find contact details for offenders.1

The date of birth and full names of offenders are critical to locating and identifying them. A significant proportion of the fines referred to the Collections Unit lack this information. The Collections Unit is taking steps to address this by working closely with issuing authorities and promoting a more co-ordinated approach to collecting and enforcing fines by all organisations involved. Proposed legislative changes will allow the Collections Unit to refuse to accept fines that do not meet minimum data requirements.

The Collections Unit’s main electronic information system (COLLECT) is being improved to provide a clear and comprehensive fines history of offenders and help Collections Unit staff pursue fines. A review of COLLECT has indicated that in its present form COLLECT will not support the continued growth in fines. Any decisions about COLLECT’s future will be made after a wider review of the infringement system is complete.

The roles of Collections Unit staff are varied and demanding, requiring careful judgement and interpersonal skills, and the exercise of specific statutory powers. Staff must have extensive knowledge, skills and competencies, and be fully familiar with legislation and policy. The Collections Unit recognises the importance of ensuring its staff are appropriately skilled and trained, and has recently appointed a national training manager responsible for preparing and implementing a national training strategy.

Staff carrying out enforcement work can be exposed to health and safety risks. Increased funding for 2004-05 has been used to appoint 30 more staff for the District Collections Units so that officers can work in pairs when undertaking enforcement work, and to provide technology to give additional support and security. These additional staff members may also help the District Collections Units manage their other duties.

Our recommendations

We recommend that the Collections Unit:

  1. consider options for improving its practices for the early collection of Court-imposed fines, and ensure contact with as many offenders as possible;
  2. consider how it can most effectively resource the District Collections Units, or redistribute administration work from the regions, to target enforcement to best effect – this will require enhanced management information and clear priorities;
  3. implement the scheduled replacement of the Trace Management System;
  4. carry out regular testing of the Trace Management System to ensure that profiles are not overlooked and that overdue fines are systematically put forward for data-matching purposes;
  5. further enhance its formal relationship with the Police at a national and district level to promote the type of positive working relationships already established with local authorities; and
  6. as part of its national training strategy, put in place a structured and consistent approach to training for staff in District Collections Units.

1: In this report, 'offender' refers to a person (or organisation) who has been given an infringement notice, or had a fine imposed or ordered by a Court.

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