OFFENDERS in the region owe more than £15m in unpaid court fines.

Figures uncovered by the Examiner show that convicted criminals in West Yorkshire owed £15,856,479 in the first three months of the year – the latest figures available.

And the overall number of cases heard at Huddersfield Magistrates’ Court has dropped since 2009.

Huddersfield magistrate of 19 years, Clr Mohan Sokhal, said fines were an important part of sentencing and that offenders should pay up or face harsher punishment.

He said: “We impose fines for some offences rather than send people to prison because it is the best option for minor offences, but they need to understand what other options are available and pay their fines.”

Those convicted of a criminal offence can be handed a fine as part of their wider sentence by magistrates, including those at Huddersfield and Dewsbury courts, as well as the two crown courts Kirklees residents will be sent to – Bradford and Leeds.

At its height in West Yorkshire in 2009 £16,842,398 was outstanding – and nationally nearly £610m is currently owed to the courts.

It relates to criminal convictions rather than civil compensation orders and includes prosecutor costs, compensation orders, victims’ surcharges, the value of unpaid fixed penalty notices and penalty notices transferred to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) for enforcement.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “When fines are imposed, magistrates and judges regularly ask the offenders to make payment in full on the day of the hearing, or if that is not possible set strict payment terms.

“HMCTS takes a robust approach to obtaining payment from all offenders who default on the payment terms of their order by actively chasing for payment by phone and text message and using a number of intelligence systems which are available.”

Clr Sokhal added: “Our duty is to rule whether a person is guilty or not, then impose the suitable sentence.

“Sometimes we see them come back because they’ve not paid their fines – they’ve lost their jobs or had benefits stopped so we have to deal with them again.

“Prison is a last resort for us, but people can go to prison if they don’t pay their fines and we have no other options.”

Cases heard at Huddersfield Magistrates Court have dropped since 2009.

Then 8,008 cases were heard, and of those 616 were youth proceedings with 3,022 being motoring-related proceedings.

In 2010 the number of cases heard dropped to 7,026, with 603 youth cases and 2,223 motoring-related offences.

In the first three months of this year there have been 1,482 cases, 105 youth offences and 280 motoring offences.

The magistrate and Kirklees councillor, Clr Sokhal says he thinks the number of cases has dropped since the police got more power to issue on the spot fines.

But he added: “We used to deal with minor cases like car parking charges, but it’s changed so much.

“But with the cuts coming to the police, who knows if it will mean more cases come to court?”