Northern Ireland Magistrates’ fines
The magistrates’ court in Northern Ireland deals with criminal matters such as not paying your TV licence, parking and traffic offences or criminal offences such as antisocial behaviour.
Fines are the most common punishment given by the magistrates’ court. Magistrates’ fines are a priority debt because the consequences for non-payment can be serious. Magistrates’ courts also issue liability orders for unpaid rates and child maintenance but the process for these is different to the criminal justice system.
How are magistrates' fines set?
If you’re found guilty of a criminal offence you may be fined as a punishment. The amount charged will vary depending on the severity of the offence and your individual circumstances.
This means the court has the power to increase or reduce your fine based on whether you’re above or below average means.
How is a court fine collected?
You’ll be sent a notice of fine informing you how much to pay, when to pay it and where to send the payment to.
The court can order the fine to be paid in one of the following ways:
- in full by a fixed date
- in instalments
What should I do if I can't afford my court fine?
If you’re struggling or finding it difficult to pay your court fine, you can:
- ask for more time to pay
- ask to pay the fine in instalments, or
- ask for the instalments to be reduced if they’re unaffordable
You can ask for an extension to pay at any time as long as the fine is outstanding.
It’s important you make a request before you miss a payment and further action is taken against you.
You can make a request in writing by completing an ‘Application for Extension of Time to Pay’ form, which you can find on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Services website. Or, you can make the request in person at your initial hearing.
If you’ve already missed a payment and have to attend a fine default hearing you’ll be able to make the request here as well. If the court accepts you can’t afford to pay your fine, they have the power to reduce it. You can request this the same way you ask for extra time to pay.
Make sure you show the court proof of your income or benefits, and a budget showing your financial situation. If you need help putting this together, we offer free, expert advice tailored to your situation. You can use our online debt help tool, or call our free Helpline.
It’s important to understand that with these options there’s a risk that further action could be taken against you, which may include being sent to prison.
What happens if I miss payments to a fine?
If you miss a payment to your fine, the court can set a fine default hearing. This gives you the opportunity to pay the fine immediately and in full, or explain why you can’t afford to pay it.
The court has various powers to enforce the fine. They include:
- an attachment of earnings or deduction from benefits, where the money is taken directly from your income at an amount set by the court
- registration of the fine where the fine would is recorded on your credit file for five years, affecting your ability to take out further credit
- a warrant of committal, meaning you could be sent to prison
A warrant of committal may be issued at the hearing, even if you attend. However, the risk of being sent to prison is much lower if you do attend, as you’ll be able to ask for more time to pay the fine.
Can I go to prison if I don't pay my fine?
If you don’t pay a criminal fine, there’s a risk the magistrates’ court will issue a warrant for you to be sent to prison. The length of the sentence will depend on how much of the fine is left to pay.
You could also be sent to prison when you’re convicted, but only if one of the following applies:
- you’re able to pay the fine, but refuse to
- you haven’t requested time to pay when the court asked if you would like to make an application
- you don’t have a fixed address in Northern Ireland
- the court otherwise deems it appropriate
The court will give a written reason explaining why you’re being sent to prison.
In Northern Ireland being sent to prison for not paying a fine is more common than in other areas of the UK, as there are fewer ways to enforce payment of the fine.
How can you help?
We can help you put together a budget to take to your court hearing showing what you can afford to pay towards your fine.
If you’re already paying a fine and it’s causing you to fall further behind with your other debts, we can help you to deal with them.
You can use our online debt help tool, or call our free Helpline for advice. All our advice is free and impartial. We’ll never judge your situation and there’s no need to tell us why you received the fine.