In 1990 the British Government Department known as the Home
Office published its Research and Planning Unit Paper 59. This contained the results of the first trial of unit fines experiments in England and Wales in four magistrates’ courts that were in: Basingstoke, Bradford, Swansea and Teesside.
Essentially these experiments were conducted to gauge whether people could be fined more according to their means. The aim was to reduce imprisonment for fine default for those who were being fined more than they could afford to repay and to fine the rich according to their means so that it would hurt them equally.
This was the first research project that I worked on as a junior researcher at the Home Office. I spent many weeks in Bradford, Teesside, Basingstoke and Swansea collecting court data relating to fines and their outcome in order to get a before and after measure of the effectiveness of the experiments.
Meanwhile, during the experiments my line manager and head of the project, David Moxon along with Brian Gibson – Chair to the Magistrates at Basingstoke spent quite a lot of time directly helping magistrates to understand and implement the experimental system, which at times involved tireless and dedicated work getting dissenters on side and smoothing over frustrations with Moxon’s mathematical formula and other justice qualms.
The problem is that the essential need for Moxon and Gibson’s hands-on sterling work in herding confused and wayward magistrates was not anywhere recorded in Paper 59. So keen were these good men that this equitable fines scheme should go ahead they did not want politicians and policy makers to see a case for refusing to role it out nationally.
So everything in the report looked like rosy good news. Just as intended. The hope was that when the scheme was rolled out across the whole country any problems could be worked through and it would all turn out nicely in the end. Only that’s not what happened when new legislation was enacted in 1992 to introduce unit fines in England and Wales.
What happened was that the magistrates across the land rebelled and the press had a field day (actually a field week), as the Scottish Government summarised the outcome:
“The English and Welsh trial in 1992 was deemed not to be a success and after six months the Home Office discontinued it. This appears mainly to have been because of difficulties in assessing the incomes of offenders and due to the opposition of magistrates to the fettering of their freedom to impose the size of penalty they wished.”
And as the BBC News neatly summarized the fiasco:
“For example, in West Yorkshire, two men convicted over a street fight paid £640 and £64 respectively, based on their income brackets. In another instance magistrates fined a man £1,200 for dropping litter after they assessed him as meeting the top income rate because he had failed to attend court or supply his financial details. The fine was later reduced to £48 on appeal. A number of magistrates stood down in protest over the scheme and another aspect of the act, which stopped them taking into account previous convictions when sentencing.
Eventually, on 13 May 1993, Mr Clarke announced he would use the Criminal Justice Bill then going through Parliament to end the fine system.”
“… Then opposition MP Tony Blair welcomed the statement on the “shambles” of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. He said: “Never have we seen so quick a collapse of government policy, even for the present government.”
The road to political hell can be paved with good intentions. If ever there is a lesson to demonstrate the need for policy oriented research to be honest and completely open about implementation difficulties of demonstration projects, experiments and trials it can be had from the unit fines fiasco. This is why professional, ethical and independent qualitative research is so important.
Both Moxon and Gibson had a bias towards wanting to see unit fines implemented in Britain. The folly of allowing those with such a personal axe-grinding bias – no matter how well intended – to run, evaluate and record the results of policy-oriented demonstration projects is clearly seen in this case.
Had our unit fines report contained a rigorous account of all the varied and prolific problems that Moxon and Gibson had in getting magistrates on board in the first place and how they were required, at times at very short notice, to provide regular in-person advice and assistance to the four courts during the experimental period then one of three things might have happened:
Either the government of the time would have decided not to go ahead with national legislation at all, or else
they would have provided a cadre of civil servants to provide the same kind of advice and assistance that Moxon and Gibson provided, or
they would have rolled the scheme out on slower area-by-area basis – providing central Home Office advice and assistance to each court until everything was running smoothly.
One of the biggest impacts of keeping the unit fines research secret is that until now policy makers have been kept in the dark about exactly why it failed at a national level but succeeded in the four experimental areas.
In the future at least, any government wishing to implement unit fines will, now the research cat is out of the bag, have a clearer picture of what English and Welsh magistrates need to help them implement such a scheme with success rather than a fair guarantee of failure.