Over €3.6 million in unpaid court fines that were referred to the police over the years to have them converted into prison sentences were not executed and have been estimated as non-collectable write-offs.
This means hundreds or possibly thousands of people have been let off the hook from paying fines imposed by the courts when handing down judgements or from being imprisoned for not paying those fines as provided by the law
According to the National Audit Office Public Accounts report (page 57), the €3.6 million in court fines that the police failed to act upon form part of an overall amount of €4.4 million that at the end of 2021 had been considered statute-barred, a state of affairs when a creditor takes too long to recover their debt.
That €4.4 million represents no less than 36.3% of the €12.2 million in overall outstanding arrears owed to the Court Services Agency at the end of 2021. Arrears owed to the agency tasked with the administration of the law courts grew in 2021 by 9.8%.
When it came to the Criminal Superior Courts, just €270,142 of its total arrears of €3,391,187 were collected in 2021. But the amount of new arrears that year grew by €538,975 – just about twice the amount collected.
The Criminal Inferior Courts saw just 8.5% of its fines of €4.5 million being collected, while newly accrued arrears for the year amounted to €1.1 million.
When it came to the Gozo Court Registry, the situation was more concerning. While just 4.9% of arrears were collected, new fines issued throughout 2021 grew by 17.9% to €514,993 as of 31 December 2021.
Regarding court fees, as opposed to fines, the situation in Gozo was almost farcical, with the NAO noting how “collection efforts were lacking at the Gozo Law Courts”.
Over the entire year, just one outstanding debtor settled the “immaterial amount” of €597, which was 0.19% of the amount owed to the Gozo courts, while fees collectable by the Gozo courts grew by 14% over 2021.
The Court Services Agency confirmed in the audit that the Gozo courts did not follow the standard operating procedures outlining the collection process – specifically that of sending a final notice, as well as filing of judicial letters followed by garnishee orders if the fees remain outstanding.
A lawyer has now been contracted to help with debt collection to file judicial letters and garnishee orders against debtors.
The collection of court fees in Malta was facing a similar uphill struggle, with €195,032 of its past balances of €2.3 million collected over the year under the NAO’s microscope, while new fees over the year increased the total by €351,463.
Over €575,000 in unpaid court fees in Malta were considered noncollectable, the vast amount of which – €496,169 – were court registry fees due by a foreign national who has been deemed as being no longer traceable.
Total fees and fines owed to the Court Services Agency
When it came to the collection of fees, the NAO found a number of hindrances, including difficulties tracing the heirs of deceased defaulters, as well as the foreign nationals who leave the island with the risk that the amount due will eventually become prescribed by law.
Charges for judicial letters are initially borne by Court Services Agency, but when a garnishee order is filed, the debtor is recharged with all the related expenses. If the amount remains outstanding, however, the costs are ultimately borne by the Agency.
Garnishee orders served on all the major banks are overall effective, According to the Agency. Yet this can only be effective when the debtor holds a bank account with a sufficient balance at a commercial bank.
Another problem identified by the NAO is that the Agency cannot stop anyone from filing an application in Court to open a new case when they still have outstanding dues since, according to the Agency, such action would go against fundamental human rights.