BILL WATCH 11-2023 - The New Standard Scale of Fines

BILL WATCH 11/2023

[6th March 2022]

The New Standard Scale of Fines

On the 22nd February the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs published a new Standard Scale of Fines Notice in Statutory Instrument 14A of 2023.  The new notice can be accessed on the Veritas website [link], and so can a small correction notice which was published two days later [link].

Background to the Notice

As we explained in Bill Watch 59/2021 [link], when our statutes prescribe fines as punishments for criminal offences they do not specify monetary amounts – which diminish in value over time because of inflation – but rather they specify the fines as levels on a Standard Scale set out in the First Schedule to the Criminal Law Code.  The Standard Scale has 14 levels and gives the monetary amounts of each level.  Thus a level 1 fine might be ZWL$200 on the Standard Scale, a level 2 fine might be ZWL$300, and so on in increasing amounts all the way up to level 14.

An example will show how the system works.  Section 50 of the Road Traffic Act states that anyone who is guilty of speeding – i.e. driving a motor vehicle in excess of the speed limit – is liable to a fine not exceeding level six.  If one looks up level six on the Standard Scale one finds that the monetary amount is US $300.  So persons guilty of speeding are liable to a fine of up to US 300.

Statutes specify fines in this way, as levels rather than as actual monetary amounts, because if fines were expressed as amounts of money Parliament would have to amend the statutes constantly to ensure the fines retained their value, and so their deterrent effect, and were not eroded by inflation.  Amending the Standard Scale of Fines Notice affects all fines in every statute through a single amendment, and since it is done by statutory instrument it is a much quicker process than passing an Act of Parliament.

Parliamentary Approval for the New Notice

Section 280(6) of the Criminal Law Code states that before the Minister publishes an SI changing levels in the standard scale he or she must first secure the approval of both Houses of Parliament for a draft SI.  The Minister complied with the section and got the National Assembly to approve the draft SI on the 18th January 2023 and the Senate to approve it on the 31st January.

Contents of the New Notice

Fines are expressed in US dollars

For the first time in some years, the monetary amounts in the new notice are expressed in US dollars, but this does not mean that all fines levied from now on must be paid in US currency.  Section 4 of the new notice states that the fines may be paid in the equivalent Zimbabwean dollars at the prevailing interbank rate.

The monetary amounts range from US $5 for level 1, through US $30 for level 3, all the way to US $5 000 for level 14.  The new amounts represent a significant increase over the old levels.  For example, a person sentenced today to the maximum level 3 fine of US $30 will have to find approximately ZWL $27 000, substantially more than under the previous scale which set the maximum level 3 fine at ZWL $2 000.  And a person sentenced to a maximum level 14 fine – which as we have said is now US $5 000 – will have to find approximately ZWL $4 500 000, whereas previously the fine was fixed at ZWL $500 000.

Amounts show maximum permissible fines

It is important to remember that the monetary amounts fixed for the different levels of fines usually represent the maximum fines that may be imposed for those levels.  This is because most statutory penalties are expressed as maximums:  for example, section 50 of the Road Traffic Act, which we mentioned earlier, states that anyone who drives a vehicle at an excessive speed is “liable to a fine not exceeding level six …”  Hence persons found guilty of speeding can be sentenced to a fine of up to level six (now US $300) but no more, and often will be sentenced to a smaller fine.

Application of the new notice and continuation of the old

The new notice applies only to offences committed after it came into operation, i.e. to offences committed on and after the 22nd February:  see section 380(5) of the Criminal Law Code.  So although the new notice repeals the previous one – SI 209 of 2021 [link] the previous notice remains relevant for offences committed when it was in force, i.e. during the period 30th July 2021 to 21st February 2023.

Effect of the new level 3 fine on “spot fines”

Level 3, as we have said, is fixed at US $30.  This is important because it is the level at which so-called spot fines are fixed in terms of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act.  Section 141 of that Act states that “peace officers” – and police officers are peace officers – can issue notices commonly called “tickets” to people who have committed offences such as minor traffic violations for which they are unlikely to receive a sentence of more than level 3.  The notices call on the person concerned to appear in a magistrates court on a specified date to face a charge of committing the offence, but say that if the person is prepared to admit the offence, he or she can pay the specified fine – which must not exceed level 3 – at a police station and so avoid the trouble and inconvenience of appearing in court.

By fixing level 3 at US $30, the new notice limits the fines that can be imposed through tickets to US $30 or the Zimbabwe dollar equivalent, which is currently ZWL $27 000.  Heavier fines can be imposed only by courts.

One further point should be noted about spot fines

Section 141 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act does not give police officers power to demand that fines be paid in cash on the spot.  There is nothing illegal about a driver voluntarily paying a fine on the spot, though he or she should insist on a proper receipt, but a police officer cannot insist on such payment and an officer who does insist on it is guilty of extortion – a very serious offence.  The driver must be given the option of going to a police station to pay the fine.

More Dollarisation

The new Standard Scale is to be welcomed – by law enforcement agents though probably not by wrongdoers – because the fines specified in the old Scale had lost much of their value through inflation in the two years since they were published, and the new fine levels are much more realistic.

It also makes sense to express fine levels by reference to the US dollar, a currency that is much less liable to depreciate in value than our unstable RTGS dollar.  On the other hand, expressing fines in this way will encourage courts to impose fines in US dollars.  Even though the notice makes provision for fines to be paid in the equivalent amount of Zimbabwean dollars at the prevailing interbank rate, judicial officers will probably impose fines in US dollars in order to avoid the trouble of trying to calculate the equivalent amount in Zimbabwe dollars on that specific date.

[Hence the new Standard Scale is likely to contribute to the further dollarisation of our economy.]

A Few Words About section 280 of the Criminal Law Code

The Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs made the SI in which the new Standard Scale of Fines was published in terms of section 280(5) of the Criminal Law Code.

This section, as we pointed out in Bill Watch 3/2021 [link], is a mess:

  • It gives two Ministers, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Justice, independent powers to amend the Standard Scale.  The Minister of Finance can do it in order to take account of a decline in the purchasing power of the Zimbabwe dollar, while the Minister of Justice can do it to take account of a change in the purchasing power of money, “or for any other reason”.
  • The Minister of Justice must get approval from both Houses of Parliament before he amends the Standard Scale;  the Minister of Finance does not.
  • The section seems to envisage the monetary amounts of the Scale being specified in both Zimbabwean and United States dollars, but this has not been done for many years.

Section 280 should be repealed and replaced with a clearer, simpler provision.

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