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i The advice on this page applies to residents in England and Wales only.

Magistrates’ court fines

The magistrates' court deals with most criminal cases in England and Wales, such as traffic offences, fines for unpaid TV licences, public order offences, and antisocial behaviour.

The most common sentences given out by magistrates are financial penalties or fines.

Magistrates fines are a priority debt because the consequences of non-payment can be serious.

Magistrates' courts also issue liability orders for council tax and child support arrears, but the rules for these debts are very different.

How are magistrates' fines set?

If a court finds you guilty and sets a fine as punishment you'll be asked to give details of your income. The fine will be set at an amount based on:

  • The type of offence
  • How serious your case was
  • Your ability to pay

It's important that you go to the hearing, and take details of your financial situation with you. It's a good idea to take proof of your income or benefits, and a budget showing your total income and living expenses. We can help you put together a budget which will show this.

The fine may be set higher than you can manage if you don't go to the hearing, or if you don't give correct information about your circumstances. The fine can sometimes be reduced afterwards but it's not easy to do this.

As well as the fine, the court may order you to pay compensation and court costs.

How are court fines collected?

The court will issue a collection order explaining how you should pay the fine. This will usually be:

  • Payment in full
  • Weekly or monthly instalments
  • An attachment of earnings, where payment is taken straight from your wages
  • A deduction from benefits, where payment comes straight from a DWP benefit

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What should I do if I can't afford my court fine?

If you can't afford the payments to a fine, phone or write to the fines officer at the court and ask if the payments can be reduced. It's much better to do this before you miss a payment.

Attachments of earnings or deductions from benefits are taken at fixed amounts and you can't reduce the payments once they're set.

The fines officer won't always agree to reduce your payments. They may pass your case to a magistrate or District Judge to decide instead.

What happens if I miss payments to a fine?

If you don't make the payments set out in the collection order the fines officer at the court will take further steps to collect the fine. These can include:

  • Setting an attachment of earnings or deduction from benefits, if this wasn't done initially
  • Sending bailiffs (enforcement agents) to visit your home and remove goods – this is a very common way to enforce fines
  • A charging order securing the debt against your home

The fines officers may refer your case back to a magistrate or District Judge who can take extra steps to collect the fine, including:

  • Increasing the fine by 50%
  • Ordering you to do unpaid work, sometimes referred to as ‘community service’
  • Sending you to prison

Do I need a solicitor in a magistrates' court?

For less serious cases, you may not need a solicitor.

But if the case is more serious and there's a risk of prison, or if you don't agree that you committed the offence, it's essential you get qualified legal advice from a solicitor.

The Criminal Law Solicitor's Association can help you find a solicitor in your area. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to pay for legal advice.

Can I go to prison if I don't pay my fine?

You can go to prison if you don't pay a fine, but this usually only happens as a last resort.

Prison is usually only a risk if the court has tried all other ways to get you to pay or if you've refused to pay. A court can give you a suspended committal to prison instead. This gives you one last chance to pay the fine and avoid prison.

How can you help?

We can help you put together a budget to take to your court hearing to show what you can afford to pay to a fine.

If you already have a fine and paying it means you're struggling with your other debts, we can also help you deal with them.

Call us (freephone, including all mobiles) or use our online debt advice tool. All our advice is free and impartial. We'll never judge you and you don't even need to tell us the reason you received the fine.