Magistrates' court fines
This fact sheet covers England & Wales. You will need different advice if you live in Scotland.
This fact sheet tells you how you can get a fine from the magistrates’ court and how to deal with this debt. It also describes what the magistrates’ court can do to recover the debt you owe on the fine if you do not deal with it, or miss agreed payments.
Use this fact sheet to:
find out what the magistrates’ court can do to recover the money owed on this type of debt;
help you to negotiate with the court if you cannot afford to pay the fine straight away;
find out how to deal with bailiffs (also known as enforcement agents) if the court uses them to recover the fine;
help you to prepare for a hearing at the magistrates’ court; and
understand when the magistrates can and cannot send a person to prison if they do not pay the fine.
This fact sheet includes information about the amount taken out of wages to pay for a fine.
Why might I get a fine?
The magistrates’ court may fine you for committing a driving offence, not paying a fixed penalty notice, not having a television licence or many other criminal offences. They can also order you to pay compensation to any injured party and award costs against you.
The fine may be set at an initial hearing or as a result of a fixed penalty notice (where the level of the fine is set automatically).
You need to make sure the court has all the information about your circumstances. This may affect the level of the fine you are ordered to pay and whether you are given time to pay the fine in instalments. You can also be fined if you do not give the court details of your income and outgoings when ordered to do so.
Fines are a priority debt because the magistrates’ court has the power to send you to prison for non-payment.
Disputing a fine
You may be able to dispute a fine if you think you do not owe the fine. You may also be able to challenge the amount of the fine if you think this is too high. Contact us for advice.
The procedure for collecting fines is as follows.
After you have been fined, the court will make a ‘collection order’ that contains details of how the fine should be paid. The notice of the fine and the payment rate (if one has been set by the court) is sent out to you.
If you agree, then an attachment of earnings order or a deduction from benefits order can be made immediately.
If you are an 'existing defaulter', the court must make an attachment of earnings order or deduction from benefits order. You will be treated as an existing defaulter by the court if you have another fine outstanding and you have not made payments as set out in the collection order for that fine.
The collection order will set out what payments should be made on your fine. This may allow you time to pay in instalments, or to ask for payment in full within ten days.
The court can also order you to be kept in the court for the rest of the day, or even order you to do unpaid work in some circumstances (with your agreement).
Be careful: the court has the power to search you and remove all the money you have with you to pay the fine.
The collection order
The court must send you a copy of the collection order which should tell you the following information:
the amount of the fine, any costs or compensation order;
whether you will be treated as an ‘existing defaulter’;
whether the court has made an attachment of earnings order or deduction from benefits order;
what the payment terms are on the fine;
how the amount owed may increase to cover the costs for collecting the debt; and
which fines office the order is allocated to.
If you cannot afford to pay, you can apply to the fines officer for:
further time to pay;
to pay by instalments; or
to change the instalments you have been ordered to pay.
Some courts have a fines officer located within the court. If this is the case, contact the court to discuss payment with the fines officer. Other courts use a regional fines enforcement team to deal with fine payments, who have the same powers as fines officers. These teams may be located away from the court. If the court that issued your fine uses a regional fines enforcement team, then you will need to contact the team to discuss your payments. Your collection order should tell you who to contact. If you are unsure who is dealing with your case, ask the court that issued the fine or contact us for advice.
If the fines officer refuses your request, you can appeal against the decision to the magistrates’ court within ten days. This may lead to a hearing with the magistrates.
Applying to the fines officer
You can only apply to the fines officer to change your payment arrangements if you can prove you have had a change in your circumstances, or you can give the court extra information about your financial position.
If you miss payments
If you miss payments and have not made an application to the fines officer to reduce your payments, the fines officer must make an attachment of earnings order or a deduction from benefits order. If neither of these orders is possible, then the fines officer may take 'further steps’. For more information, see Further steps later in this fact sheet.
Attachment of earnings orders
The amount the court can order you to pay is on a sliding scale based on your take home pay. The Deduction from wages rates table at the end of this fact sheet shows how the deductions from your wages are worked out.
An attachment of earnings order cannot be made if you are self-employed or are a director of a limited company and you do not take a regular salary.
It is possible to have more than one fine paid through a consolidated attachment of earnings order.
Deduction from benefits orders
If you are on Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Pension Credit or Universal Credit, the court can order weekly direct deductions to be taken from your benefit to pay the fine. The deduction rate is £5 per week, but for Universal Credit only, the deduction can be up to £25 each week.
If you get contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance or contributory Employment and Support Allowance, the deduction can be up to 40% of the benefit.
If the deduction will cause hardship, you have ten days to appeal against the decision to the magistrates’ court.
If you have defaulted on payments, the fines officer can refer your case back to the magistrates’ court for a hearing, or send you a notice telling you what steps they intend to take. The further steps can include:
issuing a bailiff’s warrant;
registering the debt in the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines;
making a clamping order; or
applying for the fine to be enforced in the County Court or High Court.
You have ten days to appeal against the decision to the magistrates’ court.
Changes to bailiff law
On 6 April 2014, the law on bailiffs changed. The information in this fact sheet is based on our understanding of the new rules. Some bailiffs may interpret the new rules differently. It is not yet clear how the new rules will be applied in practice. If you are unsure whether a bailiff’s actions are legal, contact us for advice.
Bailiffs are also commonly known as enforcement agents. In this fact sheet we use the term bailiff.
Most courts now use private firms of bailiffs to collect fines by taking your goods and selling them to pay the fine. This is called a ‘warrant of control’.
The bailiff should give you seven clear days’ notice that they are due to visit you. This is sometimes known as the ‘enforcement notice’. ‘Clear days’ does not include Sundays, Christmas Day or bank holidays.
When the warrant of control is issued, the bailiffs have a right to try to take control of your goods. However, they cannot actually do this until the time limit on the notice of enforcement has run out. In practice, this means that bailiffs may still be able to take control of your goods even if you move them before the time limit has run out. They could try to take control of them at the place you have moved them to once the time limit has passed.
You can ask the fines officer to recall the bailiff’s warrant to the magistrates’ court if the person with the fine is seen as ‘vulnerable’ because of either a physical disability or a mental health condition. You will need to provide medical evidence with your request, which should be in writing. Remember to keep a copy of your letter. Contact us for advice.
Do I have to let the bailiffs in?
Bailiffs do not usually have the power to break into your home and, normally, the best course of action is not to open the door to them in case they try to push past you. There is also the danger that they gain entry by peaceful means, such as by getting through an open door, or by you letting them in.
If you are not sure whether the bailiff can force their way into your home, contact us for advice.
You must either pay the debt or arrange instalment payments with the bailiff (if possible). The bailiff will often ask for high instalments as they have time limits in which to recover the debt.
A bailiff can take control of goods outside your home, so if you have a vehicle, keep it in a locked garage. If you park the vehicle on your drive or a public road, the bailiffs could clamp and possibly remove.
Bailiffs' entry rights
Bailiffs collecting certain magistrates’ court fines have the power to break into your home and other premises to take your goods, even if they have not been in before. The rules say this power should only be used if it is reasonable to do so, and a bailiff should seek the court's permission to do so. If the relevant court staff are not available, the bailiff can use their own discretion.
It is unlikely bailiffs will use force to break in, but it is possible under the rules. If bailiffs threaten to break into your home, contact us for advice.
Can the bailiffs take my goods?
Magistrates’ court bailiffs should not take:
clothing, bedding, furniture and basic household items (such as a refrigerator or a cooker or microwave) that are necessary for the basic domestic needs of you and your family;
tools, books, telephones, computers, vehicles and other items of equipment that are necessary for use personally in your job, business or education (up to a total value of £1,350); and
items you or someone else is physically using where taking the goods is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.
This is not a complete list of the goods that bailiffs should not take. If you are unsure whether an item is exempt or not, contact us for advice.
If a bailiff takes control of goods that are protected, you can make a court claim for the goods to be returned. Contact us for advice.
Can bailiffs take goods belonging to someone else?
The bailiff can only take goods belonging to the person who owes the fine. They should not take goods that belong to other people, including rented goods. If they threaten to do this, explain that the goods do not belong to you. Show a receipt or credit agreement as proof. If the owner hasn’t got a receipt, they can provide a sworn statement called a ‘statutory declaration’ instead. Contact us for advice.
If a bailiff takes goods belonging to a third party, the third party can apply to court to get the goods back. However, they will need to pay the court a deposit. The size of the deposit depends on the value of the goods that have been taken. Contact us for advice.
Bailiffs can take goods that are jointly-owned by you and your partner, but if you are the person who owes the fine, they are only entitled to your share of the goods.
If you want to complain about a bailiff, contact us for advice.
Can bailiffs take goods on hire purchase or conditional sale?
There are different legal views about whether bailiffs can take control of goods on hire-purchase or conditional-sale agreements. If a bailiff threatens this, contact us for advice.
What if there are no goods to take?
If the bailiffs come into your home, they may decide that your goods are not worth enough to cover the cost of them coming with a van to remove and sell them. If this is the case, the bailiff may return at a later date to try to take control of your goods. They have 12 months from the date of the enforcement notice to take control of your goods. If you agree instalments with a bailiff and stop paying these, the 12 months will not start until the arrangement has been broken.
What if I have let the bailiff in already?
If you have already let a magistrates’ court bailiff into your home, it is important to bear in mind the following points.
The bailiff will not usually take away goods on their first visit.
They may ask you to sign a ‘controlled goods agreement’. This allows you to keep using the items listed on the agreement. However, the bailiff can return and take the goods by breaking in, if necessary. If you don’t sign the agreement, the bailiffs may remove the goods straight away. Alternatively, they may lock up the goods on your premises. Contact us for advice.
A bailiff may not be able to take goods that are worth more than you actually owe. If they threaten to do this, contact us for advice.
What if I hide things away?
If the bailiffs haven’t yet been in and you hide things by taking them somewhere else, the bailiffs may apply to court for permission to break into the place where you have put the goods. If the bailiffs have already been in and taken control of your goods, you are committing an offence if you remove goods that they have said they will take.
Some bailiff firms are able to accept instalments on the fines outstanding, and some will only accept payment of the total amount owed. Try writing to the bailiffs, enclosing a your budget and asking them whether they will accept instalment payments. Send a copy of your letter and your budget to the magistrates’ court.
If the bailiffs will not accept the payments, save up the money to take to any hearings in the magistrates’ court to prove you are willing to pay.
Magistrates’ court bailiffs can charge you the following fees if they take the type of action described.
£75 for being instructed by the creditor, carrying out initial checks, investigations and receiving payments.
£235 to cover visiting and entering premises and taking control of your goods.
£110 to cover removing your goods, valuing them and arranging for them to be sold.
The cost of storing goods which the bailiff has removed.
The cost of hiring a locksmith, if one is needed.
If your debt is over £1,500 or if your goods are sold at auction, further fees can be charged. Contact us for advice.
The bailiffs should give you information about how much you owe before and after they visit you. If you think they have charged you too much, contact us for advice. You may be able to challenge the fees through the County Court.
Any money you pay to the bailiffs may come off their costs first before going towards the fine. However, when a fine is returned to the court the bailiffs costs may not be enforced by the court.
Complaints about bailiffs
You can complain about a magistrates' court bailiff if you are unhappy about the way you have been treated. See our Bailiff complaints fact sheet for more information.
Registration of fines
The fines officer can include the fine on the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines which may affect your ability to get credit. The information will usually stay on the register for five years. This information is not currently passed on to credit reference agencies. This may change in the future.
For more information, see our Credit reference agencies fact sheet.
A clamping order can only be made if the fines officer decides you:
are able to pay the fine; and
the value of your vehicle would cover the fine plus the costs of clamping and sale.
The court must send you a notice of the clamping order and give you a date by which you should pay the amount owed. A private clamping company will be asked to carry out the order if you do not pay by the date given.
If your vehicle is clamped, you can get your vehicle released if you pay the full clamping charge and the fine in full.
If you do not pay, the vehicle can be removed after 24 hours.
Ten days after the vehicle is clamped the fines officer can ask the magistrate for an order to sell the car. You should get notice of the hearing, which must be at least 21 days from when the vehicle was clamped. It is very important that you go to the hearing. The vehicle cannot be sold for one month from the date the vehicle was clamped.
Getting the vehicle returned
At the hearing you can ask the court to return the vehicle, particularly if you can prove the sale would not cover the costs. Ask the court to consider writing off the charges and fees if they are not reasonable.
County Court or High Court enforcement
If the fines officer decides you can afford to pay your fine in one lump sum and you have not done so, they can apply to the County Court or High Court for a third party debt order or a charging order to be made against you. Contact us for advice.
If you can't afford the repayments
You may find that you cannot afford to pay the amounts ordered for a variety of reasons, such as a drop in income, multiple debts, a relationship breakdown, a new baby or due to illness.
Contact the fines officer at the court which holds the fine. Tell them about your situation and make an offer of repayment. Provide a copy of your budget.
Some courts do not have fines officers located within the court. Instead they use a regional fines enforcement team who you will need to contact to discuss payments. Provide them with a copy of your budget.
You may have to attend a court hearing. However, if you send the court or regional fines enforcement team a copy of your budget and give them full details of your circumstances, they may accept your offer without a hearing.
If your request is refused, you can appeal against the decision to the magistrates’ court within ten days. Contact us for advice.
What happens at a magistrates' court hearing?
You will be sent a ‘default summons’ telling you when to go to court. The hearing is called a means enquiry hearing.
It is very important that you go to any court hearing. If you do not attend, the court has the power to issue:
a warrant with bail (private bailiffs will give you another court hearing date);
a warrant without bail (private bailiffs could arrest you and bring you before the court); or
a committal warrant to send you to prison (if there is a suspended sentence already on the fine).
When you attend the hearing the court will ask for details of your income, expenditure and any other debts you may have. You should take along information about your income and outgoings plus proof such as pay slips, a letter from your employer, or a letter from the benefits office and so on.
You should check with the fines office at the court if you are unsure about what the procedures are.
The magistrates’ court will usually instruct private bailiffs to enforce most warrants, including arrest warrants and warrants of committal. These activities used to be carried out by the police. Now you could have a private bailiff calling to try to enforce payment by taking your goods, or to arrest you to go to a court hearing.
What can a magistrate do at a hearing?
The magistrates have a range of options at the means enquiry hearing.
Allow you more time to pay.
Search and remove all the money you have with you to pay the fine.
Order someone, such as a probation officer, to supervise your payments. This is called a ‘money payment supervision order’.
Make an attachment of earnings order.
Order deductions from your benefit.
Apply for the fine to be enforced in the County Court or High Court.
Issue a warrant so that bailiffs can try to take control of your goods.
Order you to be detained in the court for the rest of the day. This would ‘write off’ the fine.
Increase the level of the fine by 50% if they think you have not paid due to ‘wilful refusal or culpable neglect'.
Make a clamping order.
Register the fine.
Make an unpaid work order.
Consider committal to prison.
You are entitled to ask for legal help at a court hearing relating to non-payment of a fine. You may be able to get the duty solicitor at the court to speak on your behalf at the hearing. Contact us for advice.
Unpaid work order
An unpaid work order can only be made if it is suitable in your case. This option may be worth considering where the alternative is going to prison.
Remitting the fine
This means the court can write off all, or part, of the fine if you have had a change in your circumstances or your circumstances have got worse since the fine was set. They may remit the fine if the court did not have full details of your income, expenditure and debts when the fine was originally set. This is unlikely to happen because of the other options the court has. The court cannot write off compensation orders or costs.
Can the court send you to prison?
The court can order imprisonment, but only after a means enquiry hearing which you must attend. You cannot be sent to prison without at least one hearing where you have the chance to explain your financial circumstances.
The court must have tried all other ways of enforcing the fine before they can do this.
To avoid a prison sentence you must convince the court that you have a genuine reason for not paying. This may be that your circumstances have changed since the fine was set, such as a drop in your household income, a relationship breakdown, a new baby, illness or other debts you are paying. This is why it is important to take a detailed budget to court and not be frightened to tell the court if you have other debts to pay. However, you need to treat the fine as a priority debt.
It is helpful to take some money to offer to the court, even if it is only your weekly or monthly offer of payment. This will show the court you are not refusing to pay.
The court can give you a suspended prison sentence or send you to prison straight away. Before they can do either of these, the court must establish:
wilful refusal which means the court thinks you have deliberately refused to pay; or
culpable neglect which means you have been careless or thoughtless in not paying.
Attend the hearing
If you do not attend this hearing, the prison sentence will become active. Private bailiffs can be instructed to arrest you and take you into custody. It may be possible to stop this happening by writing to the court, explaining the reason why you did not go to the hearing and why you have not paid. Another court date may then be set up to consider your circumstances.
If the court imposes a suspended prison sentence or a ‘suspended committal order’, it is essential you keep up with the repayments as ordered by the court. If you fall behind with payments again another court hearing will be set.
You are serving a prison sentence
If you are serving a sentence in prison, you can ask the magistrates’ court to ‘lodge’ (link) your fine to your sentence. This has the effect of writing off the fine. You can get a form to do this from the prison staff.
If you prefer, you can get a member of your family, a friend or an advice agency to contact the magistrates’ court for you. They should ask for your fine to be lodged to your sentence and give the court the details of your prison, your prison number and the expected date of your release.
If you have not taken steps to deal with your fine, but you have served your sentence recently, you can still ask for your fine to be remitted (written off). Take your release papers to the magistrates’ court. Ask the fines officer to show the magistrates your release papers and ask them to remit your fine.
The parking penalty scheme
Parking penalties are not enforced in the magistrates’ court. The local authority will send you a parking ticket for a fixed amount. The penalty is then registered in the Traffic Enforcement Centre at Northampton County Court as if it is a county court judgment. For more information, see our Penalty charge notices fact sheet.
For information about the legal aid scheme go to www.gov.uk and search for 'Legal aid'.
Deduction from wages rates
Deductions from weekly earnings
Net earnings % Deduction rate Not exceeding £55 0 Exceeding £55 but not exceeding £100 3 Exceeding £100 but not exceeding £135 5 Exceeding £135 but not exceeding £165 7 Exceeding £165 but not exceeding £260 12 Exceeding £260 but not exceeding £370 17 Exceeding £370 17% in respect of the first £370 and 50% in respect of the remainder.
Deductions from monthly earnings
Net earnings % Deduction rate Not exceeding £220 0 Exceeding £220 but not exceeding £400 3 Exceeding £400 but not exceeding £540 5 Exceeding £540 but not exceeding £660 7 Exceeding £660 but not exceeding £1,040 12 Exceeding £1,040 but not exceeding £1,480 17 Exceeding £1,480 17% in respect of the first £1,480 and 50% in respect of the remainder.