I am writing in response to an editorial in The Telegram from Jan. 25 titled “Blood and turnip” which discusses the latest report of the auditor general as it relates to the fines administration division and efforts to collect outstanding fines.
I thank the auditor general for the work he does on behalf of residents of the province and for putting a spotlight on this important issue. I would, though, like to address some of the points raised in Saturday’s editorial.
The $34.6 million referenced in the auditor general’s report is a cumulative total that includes all outstanding fines, including driving related fines, some of which go back decades. Each year, 80 per cent of fines are paid voluntarily but unfortunately there will always be a few who continue to flout the law in accumulating fines and in refusing to pay the money that they owe.
The article leaves the impression that we do not have an arrangement with the Canada Revenue Agency to collect money that is owed.
In fact, we entered into an agreement in 2009 that allows us to intercept income tax refunds for unpaid fines. In 2012-2013, $1.1 million was collected under this arrangement.
The issue raised by the auditor general related to the Canada Revenue Agency was around whether we should use this collection method for balances that are under $400.
This option is currently under consideration.
We also garnish wages where possible once a judgment has been obtained at Supreme Court and registered on the Judgment Enforcement Registry. Residents are also unable to register a vehicle or renew a driver’s licence unless their outstanding fines are paid or an arrangement for payment is made.
As noted by the auditor general, a small percentage of the population owes a significant amount of the outstanding fines. We know who these people are, however many of the offenders have unpublished phone numbers, have no fixed address, are incarcerated, have low or no employment history or no credit history. If the person owing the fines does not have a driver’s licence, is not employed and does not own any property, it is a significant challenge to have them pay what is owed.
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This issue is not unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, as all jurisdictions in Canada deal with similar problems. In fact, I read recently that Ontario has as much as $1 billion in outstanding fines on its books.
Let me assure the public that the Department of Justice has not simply “thrown its hands in the air” as is suggested in the editorial.
Employees in the Fines Administration Division do an exceptional job in their efforts to collect the money that is owed to the province, and legislation has been changed in recent years to provide them with new methods to collect that money.
The Department of Justice is certainly open to exploring new ways to collect the outstanding fines, but any new method must benefit the province.
One suggestion is to have people work off their debt through a fine-options program.
It would take significant administrative work to establish and run such a program that would involve using resources from multiple areas of the Department of Justice. Having said that, we have not closed the door on fine-options programs as a means to eliminate some of the outstanding fines and we will explore this suggestion further.
Police in the province will continue to charge people with offences under the Highway Traffic Act and other legislation.
I can assure the public that the Department of Justice will make every effort to collect fines, including from those few who continue to ignore the laws by refusing to pay what is owed.
Darin King is the province’s minister of justice.