NEWS

Debt agencies sought to help government collect overdue fines

03/26/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 05:59 EDT
A backlog of unpaid court fines has hit a record $136 million as the federal government revives a stalled plan to hire collection agencies to make people pay up.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued a notice this week looking for companies to help clear the overdue accounts, almost a third of them older than seven years.

The service issued a previous notice in 2012, but instead of hiring outside firms as intended, it carried on with its internal collections agency based in Montreal with a small staff.

It also chopped $1.7 million from the budget of the fine recovery program in 2013-14 to help pay down the federal deficit, said Sujata Raisinghani, spokeswoman for the service.

Outstanding fines that were recovered dropped in value that year, to $6 million from $7 million the year before, while the backlog of unpaid fines rose by $11 million to a record high of $136 million.

More stale accounts

No penalties or interest is charged on unpaid court fines, and the slow collection process is creating more and more stale accounts that may never be collected.

"It might be hard after seven years to collect it," said NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin, adding the growing backlog raises doubts about the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda.

"It's a government that talks hard, loud. But in the day to day, they're like little sheep."

Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment on the backlog, saying, "The Public Prosecution Service is an arm's-length group. You might want to talk to them."

Raisinghani said there can be many reasons for unpaid fines.

"The offender cannot be located," she said. "The offender does not have the means to pay at the moment, and is going through negotiations.… The offender declared bankruptcy and cannot pay until he has been discharged."

Fine amounts can range widely. And any money collected as a "victim surcharge" goes into victim funds administered by the provinces, while the rest goes into general revenues, she said.

Some fines levied can be high, such as the $9 million imposed for money laundering and other crimes in Montreal last week in a case involving Sy Veng Chun and Leng Ky Lech, who were also given prison sentences.

In 2002, the Public Prosecution Service took over responsibility for collecting fines for people convicted under federal law. It inherited a backlog of cases with unpaid fines totalling $47 million that year, and in the 12 years since the amount has tripled.

'Wasting their time'

The number of unpaid fines has remained relatively stable at 20,000 each year, but the average value has increased significantly.

Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said any attempt at collecting stale fines is fraught.

"If this is an attempt to extract blood from a stone, they're wasting their time – but it fits well on a bumper sticker," he said in an interview.

"My experience as a lawyer would tell me that they may very well have a problem with the [debt] statute of limitations, quite frankly."

Raisinghani said the Public Prosecution Service has several options for collecting outstanding amounts, including intercepting tax refunds from the Canada Revenue Agency, and seizing assets.

Companies have until May 5 to respond to the fine-collection tender.

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