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Court set to give more community service rather than fines

Senior Magistrate Juan Wolffe (File photograph)

Offenders could receive more community service orders instead of fines because of increased unemployment over the coronavirus pandemic, the island’s top magistrate has signalled.

Senior magistrate Juan Wolffe said Magistrates’ Court had seen a jump in people asking for more time to pay fines because of financial problems.

He added that he anticipated more community service orders being given, but that would depend on whether an offender was suitable and prepared to take part.

Mr Wolffe said: “It depends on the circumstances of the case, but the effects of the pandemic is a factor which magistrates will continue to take into consideration when deciding whether to make community service orders.

“Given the current situation, I would not be surprised if there is a noticeable increase in CSOs, but it must be noted that the individual has to be suitable for a CSO and they must want to do community service.”

He added Magistrates’ Court considered the financial circumstances of offenders and had done so before the pandemic.

Mr Wolffe said the court had long allowed people to pay their fines in instalments or even quashed fines for seniors, disabled people or those on low incomes.

But he added that job losses caused by Covid-19 had added “an additional layer of challenges”.

Mr Wolffe said: “There has definitely been a steep increase of individuals asking for more time to pay their fines because of lost or reduced income due to Covid-19.”

He added: “Prior to the pandemic the average extension to pay was approximately one month, but now the average is approximately three months. I have given extensions up to six months.

“It all depends on the amount of the fines and the personal circumstances of the individual.

“Having said this, it is important for the magistrates to decipher whether an individual has legitimately lost income due to Covid-19 or whether they are disingenuously using Covid-19 as an excuse.”

Mr Wolffe said that people who did not pay fines were often repeat offenders or just defied court orders.

But he added that the courts had seen a “considerable increase” over the past five years in people who were unable to meet financial obligations such as civil debts and child support.

Mr Wolffe said the pandemic had compounded a problem which affected “blue and white collar workers, individuals from middle class families and persons from all ethnicities”.

He added that community service was a good alternative for offenders unable to pay fines because it gave them with a marketable skill and allowed them to give back to the community.

Mr Wolffe emphasised that the best way to avoid a fine that would be difficult to pay would be to avoid committing crime.

But he added that people who found themselves in court should be “full, frank and honest with the court as to the reasons why the fine cannot be paid”.

Mr Wolffe advised offenders: “Make a genuine effort to pay off the fine – show to the court that you are willing to pay off the fine, even if it means making a minimum good faith payment.”

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Published January 29, 2021 at 7:57 am (Updated January 31, 2021 at 6:46 pm)

Court set to give more community service rather than fines

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