The petty fines that can cost you big 

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A staggering 14% of people seeking help from the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP) have found themselves suffering financial hardship as a result of court fines or some kind. 


It’s not surprising. Authorities are increasingly using fines – or the threat of them – to shore up revenue, punish minor infractions and roll-out unpopular initiatives, as the controversy around London’s expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and Oxford’s proposed car-restrictions illustrate. 


One of the main problems with this approach is that such fines often unfairly target the poorest in society, as CAP, which helps people consolidate their debts, has found. 


“At Christians Against Poverty we know that often when people are struggling in life and financially it can be really challenging to address issues or handle any unfortunate financial surprises, especially if you are in debt. This often leads to the problem escalating further. 


“Often people are not offered affordable plans to repay fines, especially where court fines are deducted from benefit payments and where penalty charge notices are issued without dialogue with the client to try and remedy the situation first.” 


The Issues with a Fines Based Law System

As well as leading to a vicious debt cycle, the other main problem with this fine-based approach to governance is that it effectively criminalises or punishes otherwise law-abiding citizens for doing something they often a) didnt’ realise was prohibited (like driving down a specific street when your car is over a certain age) or b) didn’t know they had to do, like updating their driving licence every time they move house. 

You can be fined a whopping £1,000 for failing to notify the Driver  and  Vehicle Licensing Agency DVLA about a change of address. 

You can also be fined £1,000 if you forget to renew your driving licence with a new picture every 10 years (or update it every three years if you’re over 70). 


Nearly a million motorists are thought to be guilty of committing such infractions, according to research last year by the DVLA, with approximately one in every 50 motorists currently driving around with a licence that could see them fined and their insurance invalidated if they got in a crash. 

TV Licence Fines  

tv licence fines

Another easy way to find yourself on the wrong end of a fixed penalty notice is for not paying your TV licence. Almost a third of convictions against women in 2020 were for non-payment of a TV licence, according to the Ministry of Justice. Though non-payment is an issue that effects men and women equally, women are 10 times more likely than men to be convicted for not having a TV licence, with the discrepancy blamed on the fact that women are more likely to be at home during the day, when enforcement officers tend to call. 


Used to fund the BBC, the £159 TV licence fee is essentially a tax that every household has to pay to be able to watch TV, irrespective of whether or not they watch the BBC or Channel4 (which also receives a small contribution from the licencefee).  


You need a licence if you ever want to watch or record any TV show on any TV service, including Sky, Virgin, Freeviewand Freesat. Even if you don’t own a physical TV, you still need a TV licence to watch a live show on any streaming services in the UK, including ad- or subscription-funded services like ITVX, All4, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Now, Sky Go. This applies to any device, including a computer, laptop, phone, tablet, games console or digital box. You also need a licence to legally download anything on BBC iPlayer.  


Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot technically be sent to prison for not paying your TV licence – you can only be fined by a court for non-payment – but if you don’t pay the fine when ordered by a court, authorities can take further action to collect the money, including sending you to prison.  


If you, or someone you live with, is 75 or older and receiving Pension Credit, you can apply for a free licence by calling 0300 790 6117 or visiting the TV licence website. You can apply for a 50% concession on your licence, if you are registered blind. 


It’s not just the state and the state broadcaster who resort to petty fines in this way. 


Private Company Fines

Woman-getting off the train

Private companies also often use legal threats to impose fines on unsuspecting customers. 


A train company’s “terms of carriage” usually includes strange rules that could result in you being unexpectedly fined for getting off a train a stop early, for example. Though rare, such examples usually arise if you buy a cheap, ‘advanced’ ticket, which limit you to a specific train journey at a specific time. 


Occasionally, passengers will try to be clever and beat a train company’s pricing glitches that mean it’s cheaper to buy a longer journey on the same train than the journey you actually plan to do.  


In 2018, for example, one man had to pay £64 for a second train ticket because he got on to the train at the stop after the one he had bought his ticket for. The gentleman in question had paid £19 for an advance ticket to travel from Nottingham to London St Pancras, but chose to board at East Midlands Parkway, which is the stop after Nottingham. So even though he was on the right train and had paid for the entire length of the journey he took (and more),  he got onto the train at a different station than the one written on his ticket meaning he was forced to pay for a second, full-price ticket for breaking “the terms and conditions” of his advance ticket. 


Of course, if you’re clever you can take advantage of pricing glitches like this without falling foul of officious ticket collectors. Sites such as Trainsplit.com have special algorithms that calculate ways you can get from A to B much cheaper, by, for example, buying two tickets for one single journey and four for a return one. It claims to save customers an average of £21.60 on each journey. 


You can also technically be fined for not filling in all the legally required sections of the national Census. If prosecuted, you could be made to pay up to £1,000 as punishment, plus court costs and legal fees. 


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) doesn’t have the stats yet for the number of people prosecuted for not filling in the 2021 Census, but for the 2011 one they say that “the Crown Prosecution Service took 286 cases to Court. 270 of these cases resulted in guilty convictions. Of these four received the maximum fine of £1,000.”  


The average fine imposed in other cases  was  £217.99. 


Oversights and driving

Other oversights that can lead to hefty penalties, include forgetting to insure your car. It’s estimated that there are around one million uninsured drivers in the UK. 


The police can give you a fixed penalty of £300 and six penalty points if you’re caught driving a vehicle without insurance. If the case goes to court you can also end up being slapped with an unlimited fine and disqualified from driving. The police also have the power to seize, and even destroy your vehicle.  


Since 2017, a staggering 192,663 uninsured drivers have been stopped by police. One of those stopped for being uninsured includes the former Scottish Transport Minister and possible next First Minister Humza Yousaf, who was fined £300 in 2017 for driving a friend’s car without insurance. 


You can also be fined £1,000 if you park the wrong way (ie facing oncoming traffic) at night, with the fine rising to up to £2,500 for goods vehicles or vehicles with more than eight seats. Though this one may seem odd, there is actually some logic behind it: namely that you’re more likely to cause a crash by parking on the wrong side of the street.  


The reason are two-fold: first, you’re more only likely to dazzle on-coming traffic when you turn on your headlamps if you’re parked on their side of the carriageway. Second, you’re also more likely to pull out into the path of an oncoming vehicle or bicycle when you’re facing oncoming traffic, especially if there are other cars parked in front of you, obstructing your view. 


Less logically, meanwhile, is that you can be fined for not taxing your car  – even if you don’t drive it. Most people falsely assume you don’t have to tax a vehicle as long as it’s not physically on the road. However, you need to write to the DVLA and tell them that the car is no longer in use, otherwise its computer will automatically flag your vehicle as untaxed and charge you £80 for not declaring it via a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification).  

 Untaxed Vehicles 

Like with most fine-based enforcement, its something of a lottery as to whether you are singled out or not, though. 


According to the Department for Transport, the number of untaxed vehicles on UK roads has actually doubled since paper tax discs were scrapped in 2014. 


However, if you do receive a fine and fail to pay, you can be prosecuted. What’s more, the penalty could be increased to a maximum of £1,000 if and when the case goes to court. The DVLA also has the power to clamp your car until the tax is paid. 


Parking is another issue that can lead to spiraling court costs and late penalties. One parking rule that often trips up motorists, especially outside London, is the law around double red lines. 


Stopping even for a few seconds on a double red line can lead to a hefty fine. Airports are particular danger zones for this, especially Liverpool Airport which has CCTV cameras on the streets around the airport poised to catch anyone naïve enough to attempt to pick someone up. But it’s not just airports that are red-hot on red line incursions. In 2020, a driver from Reading was fined £70 by the local council for momentarily stopping on a double red line as she was pausing to reverse into her own drive. 


Differing regional rules around bus lane use also crop up motorists who travel from neighbouring areas with more common sense (and car-friendly) bus lane policies. For example, car drivers from Leeds are used to being able to use bus lanes outside peak periods, and can thus easily find themselves hit with a fine after innocuously straying into a bus lane in York, 25 miles away, where bus lanes are strictly off limits to cars at all times, day and night. 


Even feeding pigeons in a park can get you fined in some places, like Leeds’ near-neighbours in the other direction, Bradford and Manchester. Rules on this vary depending where you live (as do cruel fines for putting up lost cat posters without permission or not carrying spare dog poo bags, even after your dog has done its “business”) but it’s getting more serious now as local councils increasingly see pigeons as “vermin” and a potential health hazard to be “controlled”. In 2020, for example, a woman in a park in Manchester was fined £150 for “littering” after feeding the local pigeons a piece of tuna baguette that she said was just “the size of a £1 coin”. 


Even feeding the wrens and robins in your own garden can result in you getting fined in some areas, if your local council considers that by doing so you may be encouraging rats. For instance, in 2021 three people were fined for feeding birds in Bradford as part of the council’s push to rid the area of rats.  

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