This report finds that many offenders are not being held accountable for their fines, there is little deterrent for failing to pay fines, and road safety is being compromised.
In 2011-12, 4.79 million infringement notices and 1.518 million warrants were issued in relation to offences committed in the state of Victoria relating to road safety and traffic, public order, industry regulation and environment protection. Road safety offences, such as speeding, drink driving and traffic light offences, were the highest category of offences.
Infringement Management and Enforcement Services (IMES) of which the Sheriff's Office is a unit, is responsible for the enforcement of unpaid infringement notices and warrants1. However IMES is not keeping up with the number of warrants issued each year so a large percentage of warrants are not enforced and expire without payment.
Since 2005, approximately two million warrants worth $886 million have been 'written-off' as a result of the Sheriff's Office being unable to effectively enforce the number of warrants issued.
During the same period IMES has only cleared $185 million cash for warrants which includes cash collected by Sheriff's Officers. For each warrant finalised by the Sheriff's Office five more are issued. This has resulted in a pool of 3.5 million warrants, valued at more than $1.2 billion currently unexecuted and in a large percentage of cases, will not be executed before they expire after five years.
IMES' incapacity to respond to the large numbers of warrants being issued is not a new issue and has been raised in a number of reports, including:
- In 1996 the Auditor-General reported that the value of uncollected fines and debts was continuing to rise2.
- In 1997 the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee made recommendations to improve the fines collection system.
- In 1998 and 2003-04 the Auditor-General again raised concerns about uncollected fines.
- In 2005 the Auditor-General examined the Sheriff's effectiveness in actioning and clearing warrants3.
- In 2005 in my Own motion investigation into VicRoads registration practices I commented on uncollected fines and the impact of out-of-date address information on enforcement.
- In 2005 the Victorian Law Reform Commission noted concerns about the Sheriff's execution of warrants and enforcement action against recalcitrant offenders.
- In 2006 the Victorian Government introduced the Infringements Act 2006 providing new sanctions for the Sheriff to deal with those who fail to pay fines or comply with court orders.
- A 2007 review of IMES Debt Management by PricewaterhouseCoopers noted that in 2000 IMES' gross debt was $280 million and by 2007 had increased to $640 million.
Despite these reports and recommendations, the number of unenforced warrants and debt to the state 'written-off' continues to rise.
In November 2011, the Victorian Attorney-General approved a program of works for fines reforms to the legislative framework that IMES operates under and the powers and sanctions available to the Sheriff.
Some of the issues I have identified will be addressed by these reforms. However, IMES only commenced work on its proposed reforms in 2011 and the reforms are yet to be legislated and implemented. The reforms I refer to in my report should be prioritised by the government and where appropriate, implemented.
IMES also needs to:
- consider increasing Sheriff's Officer numbers
- develop efficient processes and procedures
- use available powers where appropriate.
At interview the Sheriff, Mr Brendan Facey (who is also Director of IMES), said that prior to his commencement as the Victorian Sheriff in October 2011 there had been issues with unenforced warrants. He said there had been 'an enormous program of things intended for years and years'.
While in the past offenders have taken advantage of the inability of the Sheriff's Office to enforce large numbers of warrants, when the reforms proposed by IMES are implemented together with my recommendations, IMES should be able to hold offenders accountable in the future.
Factors affecting enforcement of warrants
There are a number of factors that have contributed to the inability of the Sheriff's Office to enforce such a large number of warrants including:
There are 172 Sheriff's Officers to enforce warrants. If the number of unenforced warrants to be executed were shared equally amongst the Sheriff's Officers then this would average 20,400 each, an impossible task.
Out-dated Information Technology
The Sheriff's Office's IT system is 15 years old, has a number of deficiencies and is not compatible with a range of enforcement activities available to the Sheriff.
Powers not utilised
Since 2006 the Sheriff's Office has had enforcement powers that it has not utilised that have proven successful in other jurisdictions. For example, the garnisheeing of wages and charging and selling of land and assets.
Despite having the power to make company directors liable for debts incurred by their companies since 2006, the Sheriff's Office has not used the power to any significant extent.
Problems with data sharing and reliability
In the past, the Sheriff's Office has relied heavily on address data held by VicRoads. It was not able to record alternative address data it obtained for offenders in its own database nor would VicRoads, until my investigation, update its database based on information received from the Sheriff.
There have been some issues with agencies, including VicRoads and the Victorian Electoral Commission, about sharing address details with the Sheriff. In response to my investigation both VicRoads and the Victorian Electoral Commission have said they are prepared to assist the Sheriff's Office with address data within the constraints of their legislation.
Poor enforcement strategies
IMES has no documented and systematic methodology for targeting, selecting and enforcing infringement warrants. Sheriff's Officers do not prioritise warrants but are driven by location and convenience, based on their own location and the addresses of offenders. There is neither guidance from supervisors nor any IMES policy.
I have made a number of recommendations to address expiring and unenforced warrants, including:
- The Government consider implementing the Fines Reform program as a priority.
- The Department of Justice provide more detailed annual reporting regarding warrants that are outstanding, issued, finalised, cleared and expired.
- IMES seek funding for additional Sheriff's Officers.
- IMES introduce a comprehensive operating methodology for actioning warrants across all regions.
- IMES utilise all legislative sanctions available to it in appropriate cases.
- IMES revisit and extend its data matching activities.