Comments by Justice Francis Bere pointing out the illegality of spot fines being imposed by traffic police with vehicles impounded if the fines are not paid immediately need to be considered carefully, because the judge was not banning deposit fines but rather warning the police that they were in some cases infringing the rights of an accused by demanding the fine even if the motorist contested the charge or wanted time to pay.
Deposit fines were introduced decades ago as a convenience to those who agreed they had committed minor breaches of the law, allowing them to plead guilty and pay a modest fine without having to go to court, and at the same time reducing the workload of courts in dealing with a multitude of minor offences where there was no doubt of guilt.
Those who carefully examine the form they sign when invited to pay a deposit fine will note that there are warnings that you should not plead guilty if you feel you have been wrongfully charged and that you are renouncing your right to be present at your trial if you do plead guilty.
The âfineâ you pay is not actually a fine when you pay it, rather it is a deposit towards whatever fine might be imposed subsequently by a magistrate.
Technically there was still a trial, although the accused was not present, but in practice this amounted to little more than a magistrate going through the submitted forms, checking that they had been properly filled out and that the fines were in line with the agreed amounts for these offences, and then confirming the verdict and imposing a fine equal to the deposit.
Your trial might last little more than a minute or two if the paperwork was in order. Obviously a magistrate suspecting abuse of the system, or seeing evidence of malpractice, would raise the alarm and refuse to confirm the verdict or the fine until everything was sorted out.
Generally this did not happen, because the police officer, or television licence inspector, or whoever was authorised to issue the original form did not collect the deposit. You had to go to a police station or, in larger centres, a central fines office, to pay. So someone more senior in the police could check the forms before the money was collected.
The form gave a deadline for payment of the deposit if you wished to plead guilty or, if you wished to face your accusers or plead not guilty, the date of your court appearance; in this case the form acts as a summons. Those who missed the court appearance were arrested on charges of contempt of court, for disobeying a summons.
Spot fines were introduced to smooth the process. The police found that a number of people simply ignored the deadline and had given false home and business addresses.
While they were now subject to arrest, several escaped the net because it was unlikely that a team of detectives could be deployed to track down someone who had failed to pay $10 or announce his intention to contest the charge in court. At the same time many found it convenient, if they agreed they were guilty and had cash in their wallet, to simply pay the fine on the spot, rather than make a special trip to a fines office, sometimes in a strange town, stand in a queue and go through extra bureaucracy.
So far we do not see a problem.
But, as Justice Bere noted, the problem arises when the police insist on collecting the deposit immediately even if the motorist wishes to contest the case or needs time to pay, and impounding the vehicle until the deposit, refundable if there is a not-guilty verdict, is paid.
Here the judge was certain the police are exceeding their rights and was worried that this insistence could allow forced collection of fines from the innocent. The present system might well satisfy justice in 99 percent of cases, but that cannot excuse infringing rights in the other one percent.
The judge was also concerned over reports that the completed forms are no longer being examined by magistrates, that technical trial, and that the police are retaining the fines collected for their own operational requirements in light of what everyone agrees is underfunding in the budget.
It is these matters, rather than the concept of deposit fines or even the convenience to most of optional spot fines, that must now be sorted out with the law changed if there is general agreement.
Such legal changes might well involve severe penalties for giving false names or addresses to the police and some system of collecting fines from foreign drivers breaking the law before they leave the country.
We need a system that punishes those who break the law, even in just a minor fashion, because our road safety is bad enough as it is, but which is legal and which does not involve teams of detectives having to take time from catching thieves and other serious criminals to hunt down people who have yet to pay $10 or go to court.