On-the-spot punishment

Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club raises concerns about the growth of on the spot fines.

Historically, England was defined by its attachment to the public jury trial, and the limitation on arbitrary power. Over the past 10 years, there has been a dramatic transformation of our criminal justice system, and summary power has become routine.

One of the most striking manifestations of this is the growth of on-the-spot fines, which mean that police and other officials can punish people for a series of offences ‘on-the-spot’, without legal checks and balances. A criminal offence that would have been tried in a court room – the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress’, for example, or ‘disorderly behaviour while drunk’ – are now often dealt with like a parking ticket.

The most significant form of on-the-spot fines (known as Penalty Notices for Disorder, PND) have been running at between 100,000 and 200,000 a year since they were introduced in 2004, under powers contained in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. In 2009-10, 43,338 people received PND for the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress’, and 43,570 for disorderly behaviour while drunk.

In addition, local authorities gained new powers to punish environmental offences (including littering, fly-posting, dog fouling and noise) with on-the-spot fines known as Fixed Penalty Notices, as a result of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. In 2011-12, local authorities gave out over 63,000 of these penalties. Local authorities can also fine the parents of truanting children, fines that have grown to over 30,000 a year.

Now ‘out of court’ punishments make up nearly half of all offences ‘brought to justice’, increasing from 23% in 2003 to 40% in 2008. To a large extent, justice has being taken out of the courtroom and on to the pavement. Officials sit as judge and jury, interpreting the law as they see fit.

As we might expect, some very erratic decisions have been made. A woman was fined for feeding the ducks (‘littering’, apparently), as was a man who dropped a £10 note. One Women’s Institute received threats of fines for putting up a poster (‘fly posting’), and handing out leaflets (‘unlicensed leafleting’), while others have been fined for putting up lost cat posters. A series of political protesters were issued with penalty notices for ‘harassment’, including an anti-CCTV campaigner who handed out leaflets to his neighbours. More ridiculously, a student was given an on-the-spot fine for ‘harassment’ when he repeatedly asked a police officer whether his horse was gay.

A pilot study found that many penalty notices for disorder were being issued for offences which would not have reached a court. One study found that only between a quarter and a half of PNDs went to offenders who would otherwise have been cautioned or prosecuted, suggesting that at least half would not.

Punishments vary dramatically between regions, and police authorities, so punishment depends on the policy or whim of local officials rather than a national legal standard. For example, on-the-spot fines for littering offences vary from zero to over 8000. Police forces’ on-the-spot fines go up and down in response to policy changes.

With justice by parking ticket, the distinction between crime and non-crime is blurred. People receive the same £80 fine for a wide range of incidents: it appears that some serious offences (such as theft, criminal damage, and serious drunk disorderly behaviour) are being dealt with more lightly, while trivial incidents are being punished.

Still worse, non-police officials are also being given powers to punish on the spot. Under an ‘accredited persons scheme’, private individuals (including private security guards and council officials) are given power to hand out penalty notices and other summary punishments. Local councils have also started to employ private companies in commission arrangements to issue fines – which tends to lead to people being fined for the most trivial offences, since they are the most common and easiest to catch. When there are financial incentives, punishment is distorted and works against the public interest.

On-the-spot punishment leaves the door open to corruption and arbitrary decision-making; we urgently need some basic checks and balances, before we go any further down this road.

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club and campaigning against Pavement Injustice  for on-the-spot fines. The Manifesto Club campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life. They support free movement across borders, free expression and free association.

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1 Response to On-the-spot punishment

  1. John Moore says:

    I think we need to be careful with what we claim. For example “Now ‘out of court’ punishments make up nearly half of all offences ‘brought to justice’, increasing from 23% in 2003 to 40% in 2008.” Your link isn’t working so I can’t check your sources but on the latest figures (from : http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/statistics/criminal-justice-stats/criminal-justice-stats-march-2012.pdf) there were 121,900 PNDs issued. This compares to one and a quarter million people punished through the courts.

    But yes, on the spot fines are a bad thing which extends the penal net rather than dealing with cases that would otherwise go to court.

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