Pavement injustice: the tyranny of on-the-spot fines

What does it mean for justice in Britain when criminal offences that were once tried in a court room are now dealt with on-the-spot, with the supposed 'offender' unable to argue their case?
Josie Appleton
9 February 2012

Over the past 10 years, public spaces have become increasingly policed by unaccountable officials bearing open-ended powers.

On-the-spot fines 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 around 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. 45,076 of these penalties were issued in 2008-9.

In a decade, the criminal justice system has been transformed. Now ‘out of court’ punishments make up nearly half of all offences ‘brought to justice’, increasing from 23% in 2003 to 40% in 2008.

Think about what this means: nearly 800 years after Magna Carta, summary punishment is almost as common as trial and prosecution. 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, and innocent people have been punished. 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 shop owner was fined when a sticker advertising her shop was found on a lamppost, though she denied putting it there.

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, so punishment depends on the whim of local officials rather than a national legal standard. On-the-spot fines for littering were 2077 in Sandwell and 3110 in Peterborough, but only 8 in Preston and 1 in Stevenage. Surely littering cannot vary so much between different regions?

The point is not that all those who received on-spot-penalties were innocent, but that without a trial nobody knows whether they were or not. 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. With justice by parking ticket, the distinction between crime and non-crime is blurred.

Of course, there have always been on-the-spot fines for actions such as parking on double yellow lines, or speeding, but these are technical questions of non-compliance, and not offences per se.

Criminal offences involve a strong subjective element. When is drunken behaviour so bad that it is criminal? When does rudeness become harassment? When does bad driving become dangerous driving? It is through contestation in court that law arrives at definitions of crimes such as ‘harrassment’, definitions that change as public mores change (in the 1980s two men were convicted of harassment for kissing in public, which would not be the case today).

Increasingly court judgements are detached from the use of on-the-spot fines. For example, a man who had told a police officer to ‘f*** off’ had his fine overturned on appeal, with the judge ruling that he was using ‘the language of his generation’. Yet police in Yorkshire announced plans to give on-the-spot fines for swearing in public.

In court, the official and defendant’s (often opposing) versions of events are tested. The right to a fair trial has been diminished to a right to appeal a summary punishment. One lady, given an on-the-spot fine for dropping a cigarette butt, flat-out denies it: she says that she put the cigarette butt out with her foot and then put it in her pocket. Yet her appeal comes after her punishment, not before.

The accountability of officials in the courts is diminished to a lesser duty, to report ‘returns’ on their on-the-spot fines to the relevant government department. This is accountability as stock-taking, not justice.

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 also given power to hand out penalty notices and other summary punishments. In December 2010, there were 2,219  of these individuals, including employees of bus and train companies, three security companies in Hertfordshire, and ‘community wardens’ employed by local councils.

Giving police powers to employees of private companies is a very dangerous step indeed. These are mercenaries – they lack knowledge of the law, and are accountable not to police authorities but to their private employers. Such ‘accredited persons’ are liable to be even more arbitrary in their use of open-ended powers. 

On-the-spot fines are semi-punishments, and the people who receive them are semi-criminals. The system is set up to encourage you to accept the £50 or £80 fine, with threats of greater fines if the case proceeds to court. The penalty notice is for a criminal offence, but accepting the fine involves no admission of guilt and is not a conviction proper. However, there are lasting consequences: on-the-spot fines remain on people’s records and can come up on CRB checks, affecting job applications or child custody cases.

A new Manifesto Club campaign against ‘pavement injustice’ will take on these unaccountable officials in public spaces – investigating how powers are being used, and calling for their review and limitation. We want to defend the principle that justice is done properly in the courtroom, rather than on-the-spot by a badged busybody. Law-abiding citizens should be free to use public spaces as they please, and left to feed the ducks in peace.

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