By Angelos Anastasiou
Unpaid fines have become a real problem for both the police and the justice ministry, with a total of €203 million outstanding as at year-end 2014, the House Watchdog committee heard on Tuesday.
According to Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides, the issue has been festering for years as a whopping 201,000 unpaid fines in 2013 only rose to 240,000 the next year.
“This is an issue that directly impacts public finances since it represents funds due to the government but not received,” Michaelides said.
Total dues to the government as at year-end 2014, the Auditor General said, were €116 million, of a total €203 million. The bulk of this amount represented dues to Social Insurance – some €100 million, of which €3.5 million are owed by 18 companies, and €2.5 million by professional sports clubs.
And 80,000 of all outstanding fines were traffic tickets for total dues of almost €20 million, half of which were fines of less than €300 each.
But among them, Michaelides added, were several tickets issued to individuals who receive a salary from the government. For instance, he said, a government doctor has 45 unpaid tickets for various traffic violations, for a total €82,000, of which 35 – for €76,000 – had been issued before he was hired by the state as a doctor.
“A procedure is being prepared for the automatic withholding of funds from the salaries of civil servants for unpaid dues to the state,” the Auditor General said.
Acknowledging the problem, Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou countered with the need for social sensitivity by the police force.
“The need to collect unpaid fines must be viewed through the prism of today’s circumstances, which necessitate a more humane approach,” he said.
He added that alternatives considered include the payment of dues through community service instead of jail time.
But in any case, Nicolaou said, the ministry has adopted certain policies to facilitate easier payment of fines, “at least by those who can afford it”.
“We have scanned all outstanding fines, allowing citizens to search online for any dues relating to themselves,” he explained.
The ministry, he added, is promoting the payment of dues over the internet via credit card, either for the whole amount or in instalments – if so agreed with the authorities.
Additionally, a study being prepared by the management of the Central Prisons suggests that fines may be repaid through community service.
“We don’t want anyone to go to jail for an unpaid fine – we don’t think it’s right,” the minister told deputies.
And with regard to arrears by professional sports clubs, Nicolaou explained that as of January 2014 all clubs pay their dues on time, but repay any dues outstanding as at year-end 2013 via a 60-month schedule of equal instalments.
“Clubs that fail to comply with this repayment regime automatically lose access to any state subsidy they may be entitled to, and are referred to the Cyprus Football Association’s disciplinary body, which imposes a fine and suspends their right to sign players,” Nicolaou said.
“Additionally, the finance minister denies them a repayment confirmation, which is a prerequisite for eligibility in UEFA tournaments.”