Inter-ministerial group looking at ways to cut number of minor violations entering the court system

Parking offences are an example of minor cases that can be settled by paying a composition fine. However, a survey last year found that 60 per cent of offenders hauled to court did not know that court fines are several times that of composition fines
Parking offences are an example of minor cases that can be settled by paying a composition fine. However, a survey last year found that 60 per cent of offenders hauled to court did not know that court fines are several times that of composition fines. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Getting more to settle minor offences via fines will save court time, even spare offenders jail

As many as 200,000 cases of people failing to pay their fines for minor violations such as illegal parking and littering land in court each year. Not only does this waste court time and resources, but it also mean costlier fines, and even jail terms, for offenders.

That is why the authorities are trying to fix the problem. An inter-ministerial group is looking at ways to cut the number of regulatory offences entering the court system.

Chief among the proposals is a revamp of the composition fine notices sent to offenders. A composition lets an offence be settled with a fine, without having to be convicted in court.

A survey last year found that 60 per cent of the offenders who were hauled to court did not know that court fines are several times that of composition sums.

Changes will be made to the design, layout and wording of the notices to ensure that they are simple, concise and clearly set out the "likely much higher financial consequences of a court appearance".

  • 200,000

    Number of minor violation cases such as illegal parking taken to court each year

    50,000

    Number of arrest warrants issued a year for the offenders when they do not show up in court

    60%

    Offenders hauled to court who did not know that court fines are several times that of composition fines

The initiative, led by the Attorney-General's Chambers, was disclosed by Deputy Attorney-General Tan Siong Thye yesterday at the third Criminal Law Conference.

In his speech, he said regulatory offences are minor violations but are "heavily represented" in the State Courts. From 2012 to 2015, there were around 180,000 to 200,000 cases each year. This is despite measures to deal with the deluge of regulatory offences, such as the Night Courts and an automated system to settle traffic tickets.

By contrast, more serious criminal cases numbered only about 60,000 annually.

In addition, about 50,000 warrants of arrest are issued each year for the minor offences when the offenders fail to attend court.

Attending court is time-consuming and court fines are generally at least four times that of composition sums. If the fine is not paid, the offender may have to serve a jail term, said Mr Tan.

In April last year, an interior designer who failed to pay parking penalties of $660 over four months, ended up having to fork out $7,000 in court fines. He had ignored three reminders to pay the composition fines for 14 parking offences.

After he was summoned to attend court, he skipped five sessions, which led to five arrest warrants being issued against him.

Court resources spent on regulatory cases could be freed up for more serious criminal offences, said Mr Tan, while employing prosecutors and enforcing warrants of arrest strain the resources of enforcement agencies.

Besides a redesign of the composition notices, other proposals include encouraging offenders who fail to pay their composition fines to plead guilty by letter or electronically, without personally attending court.

He said that the law already allows offenders to plead guilty in these ways, but the process is seldom used as most are ignorant of it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Arresting the number of cases going to court'. Print Edition | Subscribe