Walking dogs on beaches and accidental littering landing thousands in court

Dog walker - Reuters
Dog walker - Reuters

Nearly 12,000 people have been dragged through the courts by local councils for offences including littering, dropping cigarette butts and walking dogs on beaches, new data shows.

Private companies operating as ‘litter police’ and often paid commission for each fine issued are being used by councils to raise millions of pounds.

But newly released figures show thousands of people have also been pursued through the courts for non-payment of fixed penalty notices (FPNs).

Justice system clogged up by petty offences

Now campaigners fear the already stretched judicial system has become clogged up with hearings for petty offences, many of which are settled without the alleged offender even attending court to defend themselves.

Manifesto Club, an organisation campaigning against the “hyper-regulation of public spaces”, used Freedom of Information laws to ask each local authority how many fines private companies had issued on their behalf, as well as how many of those were then pursued through the courts for non-payment.

Of the 41 local authorities which responded, a total of 11,954 prosecutions for unpaid FPNs were taken to court between April 2021 to March 2022.

Although the data did not reveal whether the cases were successful, a total of £1,028,716 was raised from recouped fines or legal fees, according to 13 councils that held or released the data.

North East Lincolnshire Council revealed how one resident was fined £440 and ordered to pay £226 costs for walking their dog on a beach in April 2021. The case was proven in their absence.

Waltham Forest Council pursued 3,439 unpaid fines through the courts in its North East London borough. A total of 8,166 fines were issued, including 6,367 for littering and 613 for public spaces protection orders, offences deemed a nuisance in communal areas.

Lambeth Council issues most fines

Lambeth Council issued the most fines with 17,678 FPNs handed out - the majority for littering - but only 230 non-payment cases were pursued through the courts.

Of the 3,811 FPNs handed out by Leeds Council, 3,755 were for smokers who discarded cigarette butts on the ground. A total of 475 non-payment cases were taken to court.

Out of the 8,925 FPNs issued by Enfield Council, 908 were for spitting, and 7,420 for littering.

Manchester City Council chased 455 non-payment cases in the courts, having issued 11,881 FPNs, 30 of which were for dog control offences.

Hounslow Council took 819 people who failed to pay fines to court after issuing 5,905 FPNs that year.

Doncaster Council pursued 429 non-payment cases to court having issued 1,893 fines, some FPNs were given to people spotted “carrying alcohol”.

Meanwhile, Bristol City Council took 651 people to court for refusing to pay, after issuing 4,726 fines for offences including “fly posting” and “nuisance parking”.

Birmingham City Council chased 708 people to court for failing to pay after it handed out 4,625 tickets for offences including “distributing printed matter”.

Petty fines eroding trust between councils and public

Last year, Jo Churchill, the former environment minister, warned councils that such fines should not be used as a way to boost coffers because it eroded the trust between councils and the public.

Josie Appleton, the Manifesto Club director, said commission hungry employees were unfairly giving people who refused to pay the FPNs criminal convictions, often for minor transgressions such as accidentally dropping litter.

“This data shows the growing reach of private enforcement and its corrupting effect into the heart of the public legal system,” she said.

“It means that more than 11,000 prosecutions were carried out on the back of incentivised penalties, where the officer was driven by the need to make a commission rather than the interest of proportionality or justice. Thousands of people now have criminal records as a result.”

Councillor David Renard, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association said it would be “not be fair” to ignore those who “soil the environment” while the “vast majority” of residents “clean up after themselves”.

“Each council understands the best way to tackle litter in their communities at minimum cost to council tax payers, and responding proportionately to the offence whilst being robust enough to tackle abuse of the local environment,” he added.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The government is clear that councils must not abuse the power to impose penalties or use litter enforcement as a way of raising money.

“We have provided guidance to councils on effective and proportionate litter enforcement and the Environment Act enables us to put that guidance on a statutory footing.”