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Court debts and fines

Court fines for criminal offences are some of the most important debts to pay. Courts have wide-ranging powers to collect fines, and in some cases you could go to prison for non-payment.

If you’re told to attend a hearing it’s important you do this and take details of your financial circumstances with you.

If you tell the court about your income and essential living costs, they can take this into account when deciding how much to fine you and the rate you should pay. If you don’t attend hearings the fine might be set at more than you can afford, which can be more difficult to reduce afterwards.

Court fines should always be treated as priority debts because the consequences of not paying or falling into arrears can be serious.


What should I do if I can’t afford a court fine?

If you can’t afford the fine you should contact the fines officer at the court and ask for a reduction in your payments. Make sure you do this this before you miss a payment as the court can take further steps to collect the fine if you miss payments.

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What happens if I don’t pay my fine?

The consequences of not paying a court or criminal fine can be very serious. The court’s powers to collect unpaid fines vary depending on where you live in the UK. The most commonly used methods are:

England and Wales

  • A regular weekly amount can be taken directly from some types of benefits
  • Your employer can be ordered to send a percentage of your wage to the court
  • Bailiffs (enforcement agents) can visit your home to remove and sell goods
  • Your fine can be added 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


  • A regular weekly amount can be deducted from certain types of 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 an earnings 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

Prison is currently the main penalty for non-payment of court fines, and many of the options available in other UK countries aren’t available in Northern Ireland.

There are plans to bring in alternatives, which will hopefully reduce the amount of people sent to prison for unpaid court fines.

Can I go to prison for not paying my fine?

It’s possible to be sent to prison if you don’t pay a court fine, but this is usually a last resort for people who are ignoring or trying to avoid payment.

If you don’t co-operate with the court and all other means of getting you to pay have failed, the court could decide to give you suspended committal to prison, giving you one last chance to pay the fine and avoid prison.

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, get in touch with our Helpline for free, impartial advice. You can also use our online Debt Remedy tool which offers practical advice and debt solutions to help you deal with your debts.

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“I wish to thank your staff for all the great help they gave me when I was in so much debt.
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.

*This is the average rating of our service on Feefo by DMP and DRO clients three months into their solution.

© StepChange Debt Charity 2016