5. Penalty notices – fixed penalty notices and penalty notices for disorder

Guideline users should be aware that the Equal Treatment Bench Book covers important aspects of fair treatment and disparity of outcomes for different groups in the criminal justice system. It provides guidance which sentencers are encouraged to take into account wherever applicable, to ensure that there is fairness for all involved in court proceedings.

Penalty notices may be issued as an alternative to prosecution in respect of a range of offences. Unlike conditional cautions, an admission of guilt is not a prerequisite to issuing a penalty notice.

An offender who is issued with a penalty notice may nevertheless be prosecuted for the offence if he or she:

  • asks to be tried for the offence; or
  • fails to pay the penalty within the period stipulated in the notice and the prosecutor decides to proceed with charges.

In some cases of non-payment, the penalty is automatically registered and enforceable as a fine without need for recourse to the courts. This procedure applies to penalty notices for disorder and fixed penalty notices issued in respect of certain road traffic offences but not to fixed penalty notices issued for most other criminal offences.

When sentencing in cases in which a penalty notice was available:

  • the fact that the offender did not take advantage of the penalty (whether that was by requesting a hearing or failing to pay within the specified timeframe) does not increase the seriousness of the offence and must not be regarded as an aggravating factor. The appropriate sentence must be determined in accordance with the sentencing principles set out in this guidance (including the amount of any fine, which must take an offender’s financial circumstances into account), disregarding the availability of the penalty;
  • where a penalty notice could not be offered or taken up for reasons unconnected with the offence itself, such as administrative difficulties outside the control of the offender, the starting point should be a fine equivalent to the amount of the penalty and no order of costs should be imposed. The offender should not be disadvantaged by the unavailability of the penalty notice in these circumstances. Please refer to the list of offences for which penalty notices are available, and the amount of the penalty.

Where an offender has had previous penalty notice(s), the fact that an offender has previously been issued with a penalty notice does not increase the seriousness of the current offence and must not be regarded as an aggravating factor. It may, however, properly influence the court’s assessment of the offender’s suitability for a particular sentence, so long as it remains within the limits established by the seriousness of the current offence.