The vast majority of criminal cases are heard in the Magistrates' Court and fines are the most common form of sentence passed there. For lower level offences, such as speeding offences, you are often able to plead guilty by post and be sentenced to a fine in your absence, so there will be no need to attend court at all, although if the Magistrates' are considering disqualification you will have to attend court.
"THE VAST MAJORITY OF CRIMINAL CASES ARE HEARD IN THE MAGISTRATES' COURT AND FINES ARE THE MOST COMMON FORM OF SENTENCE PASSED THERE"
Although most cases which go to court stay in the Magistrates' Court, some offences can be heard both in the Magistrates' Court and the Crown Court and some can be heard only in the Crown Court. If you are unsure where your case will be heard click here on Which court Will I go to?
The maximum fines that can be imposed for cases in the Magistrates’ Court depend on the offence charged; offences have different fine levels available, from Level 1 to Level 5.
fines in the Magistrates' Court
In the Magistrates' Court the maximum fine levels are:
- Level 1 Offence – £200
- Level 2 Offence – £500
- Level 3 Offence – £1,000
- Level 4 Offence – £2,500
- Level 5 Offence – unlimited. (Until 12 March 2015 the maximum fine in the Magistrates' Court was £5,000.)
You can find out which level your offence is by looking in the Sentencing Guidelines (see below).
fines in the Crown Court
The Crown Court has the power to impose unlimited fines. When the Crown Court imposes a fine it will fix a custodial sentence of in default (i.e. to be served if the fine is not paid). The period in default will reflect the amount of the fine and the maximum periods in default are set out in the table in s.139 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.
How Does the Court decide on the amount of a fine?
"THE FINE MUST REFLECT THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE OFFENCE AND THE MEANS OF THE DEFENDANT"
First, the court will decide what level of fine is available for the offence. Secondly, the court will look at the sentencing guideline that applies to the offence it is dealing with. Third, the court will take the defendant's means into account in determining his ability to pay. In short, the fine must reflect the seriousness of the offence and the means of the defendant.
The Sentencing Council website has a helpful section here on the Approach to the Assessment of Fines.
Criminal Practice Directions VII: Sentencing (Part Q) contains information on the provision of financial information for sentencing.
Sentencing Guidelines for Fines
For offences in the Magistrates' Courts, you can look up your offence and the applicable fine level in the Online Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines available on the Sentencing Council website.
When you click on the link you will see a Search Offences box. You simply type the offence you are facing into this and follow the link.
Example Speeding Offence fine calculation
To take an example of a Speeding Offence, if you type 'Speeding' into this Search Offences box you will then see a Speeding Link. When you click on this it tells you that speeding is 'triable only summarily' (i.e. the case can be dealt with only at the Magistrates' Court and not at the Crown Court) and that the maximum fine is level 3 (or level 4 if it was a motorway speeding offence). Assuming it was not a motorway offence, the maximum fine (level 3) will be £1,000.
Under the heading 'Offence seriousness (culpability and harm) - A. Identify the appropriate starting point' the table indicates that the starting point for speeding depends on the circumstances of your case, e.g. up to 40mph in a 30mph zone has a starting point of a Band A fine (+ 3 penalty points) whereas 51-60mph in a 30mph zone has a suggested starting point of a Band B fine (+ 6 penalty points or disqualification).
The Band Ranges link then reveals that the starting point for a Band A fine is 50% of relevant weekly income with a fine range (depending on the further circumstances of the case) of 25 – 75% of relevant weekly income. Clicking Next reveals those factors that can either adjust the starting point fine up or down (e.g. poor road or weather conditions = up; genuine remorse/plea of guilty = down).
For offences in the Crown Court you can look up the individual Sentencing Guidelines (on the Sentencing Council website) for the offence you are interested in.
You can find more information on this website about using Sentencing Guidelines here.
"FINE ENFORCEMENT TAKES PLACE IN THE MAGISTRATES' COURT (EVEN FOR FINES IMPOSED IN THE CROWN COURT) AND STARTS BY THE COURT ISSUING A SUMMONS OR (WHERE A SUMMONS HAS BEEN IGNORED) A WARRANT FOR A DEFENDANT'S ARREST REQUIRING HIM TO ATTEND COURT FOR A MEANS ENQUIRY TO BE CONDUCTED"
Fines must be paid immediately, or within such time as the court orders. Often fines are ordered to be paid by instalments. Failure to pay as required means the court may take enforcement action. Fine enforcement takes place in the Magistrates' Court (even for fines imposed in the Crown Court) and starts by the court issuing a summons or (where a summons has been ignored) a warrant for a defendant's arrest requiring him to attend court for a means enquiry to be conducted.
The court can require the defendant to produce a statement of means; failure to do so is a criminal offence, as is giving false information.
Following a means enquiry, the court has various options available to it to deal with a fine defaulter. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the court can allow more time to pay, or order payment by instalments (or reduce the amount of the instalments). It can order that all or part of the fine is remitted (cancelled) if there has been a change in the defendant's circumstances. The Magistrates' Court can also impose a money payment supervision order, or make an application for benefits reduction, an attachments of earnings order, a distress warrant (i.e. removal of goods), take civil proceedings and impose (for those aged 18 to 24) an Attendance Centre Order.
Imprisonment for fine default
The Magistrates' Court does have the power to impose a custodial sentence for defendants aged 18 or over for failing to pay a fine. If the original sentence was imposed in the Crown Court a sentence in default would have been imposed (except on a Limited Company) in accordance with the table in s.139 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. In other cases the maximum sentence will be in line with the table in Schedule 4 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.
A custodial sentence can only be imposed where (1) there has been a means enquiry and the court is satisfied that the defendant has not paid due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect, and all other methods of fine enforcement have been considered and have either been unsuccessful or were considered to be inappropriate; (2) a custodial sentence for fine default can also be imposed where the offence for which the fine was imposed is imprisonable, the defendant is already serving a custodial sentence and the means enquiry reveals that the defendant has the means to pay immediately.
If the court does impose imprisonment, it has the power to suspend the sentence on condition that the defendant makes regular payments.