Fines: A review of the sanction, its use and operation, and research evidence

By Dr Jay Gormley

• Criminal fines are the most common criminal sanction and account for about 75% of principal sanctions issued by courts. As a principal sanction, fines are most commonly used for relatively less serious offences where an out of court disposal (OOCD) or discharge is not appropriate or possible. However, fines can also be used as a complementary sanction to another disposal – such as a community order for more serious offences.

• Research is needed to understand the most effective use of fines compared to other sanctions (e.g. community orders, compensation orders, etc.) and OOCDs (including those which result in a noncriminal fine). Such research could inform guidelines and our understanding of the most suitable thresholds for each option.

• Research should seek to understand in what cases using a fine along with another disposal (such as a community order) may be more effective. Such research might usefully seek to understand sentencers and offenders’ perspectives and current practices(for which there is little data).


• There is a need for the law to provide better clarity concerning the most appropriate role for criminalisation. Most notably, there could be better clarity about the relationship between criminal fines issued by courts and non-criminal fines issued by criminal justice personnel (e.g. police officers and prosecutors) by way of an OOCD.


• The use of fines will have important effects on the use of other disposals such as discharges and community orders. Further data is needed to understand the complex factors that lead to a fine or another disposal being issued and the implications this has on the effectiveness of sentencing.


• In the past, defaulting on a fine frequently resulted in the next step being a custodial sentence. Today, other sentencing disposals have to be considered first, ameliorating this issue. However, currently, there is no available data on how many people default on a fine, are given another order (e.g. a community order) which they also fail to comply with, and are ultimately given a custodial sentence for what was initially a finable offence. This matter requires urgent clarification and it should also be investigated whether it contributes to the high number of short custodial sentences.


• Fines, more than any other disposal, raise questions of fairness given the socio-economic inequality in society. Without care, fines risk disproportionately punishing the poor who may suffer more from a fine of a given amount. The Sentencing Council provides crucial guidance in this respect, but it could be taken further.
Read the full report Here