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Cooks courts clogged with unpaid fines

Thursday 15 December 2022 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Court, Crime, National

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Cooks courts clogged with  unpaid fines
It was an expensive visit to court last week for a visiting couple who were involved in a motorcycle crash at Tupapa. 17110602

Cook Islands courtrooms are continuing to be clogged with climbing numbers of people who haven’t paid their fines.

Cook Islands News has again contacted Prime Minister and Minister of Police Mark Brown with questions as police have issued 30 summonses for court appearances next week, in an ongoing effort to “target individuals for unpaid traffic fines”.

The fines date back to December 2021.

Police confirmed there are another 54 outstanding fines from December 2021 after police carried out a blitz on Rarotonga during the 2021 festive season. 

PM Brown did not respond after earlier this year labelling thehandling of minor traffic infringement notices, “bizarre”.

“It doesn’t make sense to me, how can you be convicted for a $20 fine?

“It just sounds kind of weird that the police and the courts are conspiring to convict Cook Islanders, it doesn’t make sense to me,” PM Brown said at the time.

Brown later changed tack after he was briefed by the Police Commissioner, saying the simple message was just pay the fine, otherwise you’re going to have a record. 

“I thought it was a laborious process, but when you talk to the people involved, that’s what they have to do.

“Pay the fine, that way your names not in court, you don’t get a record, easy.”

While Brown did not respond to enquiries on Wednesday, police spokesman Trevor Pitt did not give direct response to questions.

Later in the day, a spokeswoman for Brown said: “Unpaid fines are not normally a matter to be dealt with by the Prime Minister, even if that person is the Minister of Justice; rather a matter to be handled by the justice system”.

The newspaper asked Pitt if the process was a time consuming exercise for police and everyone else, if there is another way it could be dealt with, and if the system is fair.

Pitt did provide additional figures, saying there had been at least three months in the past 12 months where there had been more than 40 unpaid fines lodged with the court.

Police prosecution was now focusing on the high numbers to get the figures down quickly, he said.

There was no time-frame as there were also court sittings to schedule with the Ministry of Justice. 

The matter is ongoing as 53 people were called into the Criminal Court at Avarua for unpaid fines just last month.

At the time, police had issued more than $65,000 in traffic fines since January.

While Justice Ministry head Tamatoa Jonassen told Cook Islands News last month that it is important that people are held accountable if they are issued a fine as it is part of a “social contract and expectation of living in a society that values the Rule of Law”, former Australian police officer Rod Henderson said seven days to pay a fine was not logical or feasible.

It needed to be extended out to a month like it is in New Zealand and Australia, not seven days, Henderson said at the time. 

Earlier this year, after a string of people landed in court for failure to pay a fine, Rarotonga lawyer Mark Short said an unacceptable number of young people were ending up with convictions as a result of the process.