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Criminal fines and debt

Fines imposed by a court for criminal offences are one of the most important debts to pay. This is because courts have wide-ranging powers to collect fines, and in some cases you could go to prison for non-payment.

If you’re struggling to pay the instalments fixed by the court, or if you’ve missed any payment, contact the court which set the fine straight away. If you don’t the court can take further action promptly and this can make your fine much harder to deal with.

What happens if I can’t pay my fine?

The consequences of not paying a fine can be very serious. The court’s powers to collect unpaid fines vary between the different countries of the UK, but the most commonly used methods include:

England and Wales


  • A regular weekly amount can be taken straight from some benefits
  • Your employer can be ordered to send a percentage of your wage to the court
  • Bailiffs and enforcement officers can visit your home to remove and sell goods
  • Add the fine to a public register so it appears on your credit file
  • You can be ordered to carry out unpaid work in the community
  • As a last resort, you can be sent to prison

Scotland


  • A regular weekly amount can be taken straight from some benefits
  • Your employer can be ordered to send a percentage of your wage to the court
  • Money can be taken directly from your bank account using a bank arrestment
  • Your vehicle can be clamped and towed away
  • You can be ordered to carry out unpaid work in the community
  • As a last resort, you can be sent to prison

Northern Ireland

At present, the main penalty for non-payment of fines is prison, and as many of the options available in other UK countries aren’t available. There are plans to bring in other alternatives which will hopefully reduce the number of people sent to prison for defaulting on fines.

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Prison for non-payment of fines

In all UK countries, prison is a risk if you don’t pay a criminal fine. This is normally only used as a last resort for people who are ignoring the fine or trying to avoid payment. 

This is why it’s very important to let the court know if you’re struggling to afford the payments. If it’s clear that you’re not ignoring the fine, and you’re making every effort to pay what you can, it’s very unlikely you’ll be sent to prison.

If you need help working out what you can realistically offer to pay, contact us for free debt advice.

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They were a pillar of support to me.” (Leslie, Essex)

Foundation for Credit Counselling Wade House, Merrion Centre, Leeds, LS2 8NG trading as StepChange Debt Charity and StepChange Debt Charity Scotland. A registered charity no.1016630 and SC046263. It is a limited company registered in England and Wales (company no:2757055). Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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© StepChange Debt Charity 2017