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A Fine on Time: The Monitoring and Evaluation of the Pilot Supervised Attendance Order Schemes - Research Findings

DescriptionAn evaluation of three pilot schemes (Ayr, Tayside and Highland) of SAO are presented in this document.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998

Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 2


ISBN Publisher The Scottish Office Price £5.00

The Supervised Attendance Order (SAO) was introduced under Section 62 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990. The aim of the SAO is to reduce the number and proportion of offenders sent to prison or detention as a result of their being in default of a fine. Three pilot schemes (Ayr, Tayside and Highland) became operational in 1992, each operating in different ways. An in-depth evaluation of the pilot schemes was undertaken and the findings are presented below. A detailed research report is available in the CRU series.
Main findings
  • The scheme in Ayr offered educational or constructive use of time in collaboration with local agencies. In Tayside, APEX, a voluntary agency, provided attendees with education, constructive use of time and unpaid work. The Highland scheme provided unpaid work only, supervised by community service supervisors.
  • The pilot SAO schemes were initially available for 5 sheriff and 1 district court. The district court had the highest use of the fine as a first disposal, a higher proportion of female defaulters and the lowest use of the custodial sentence on default compared with the sheriff courts.
  • The introduction of the SAO in Ayr Sheriff Court was associated with a reduction in the proportion of defaulters receiving a custodial sentence in the first 5 months of the scheme.
  • The SAO was found to be viable. One hundred and seven Orders were made during the study period. In the first year of operation, 288 Orders were made in the 3 regions. Unacceptable absences were low, discipline was imposed and most Orders were successfully completed. The majority of offenders felt they had benefited from the Order and, overall, sentencers considered activities were constructive and the SAO was credible. SAO staff were of the opinion that SAOs were used as an alternative to custody in over 75 per cent of cases.
The SAO is aimed at reducing the number and proportion of offenders who are imprisoned for being in default of a fine. It has the objectives of:
  • Providing courts with a credible community-based alternative to custody for fine defaulters.
  • Providing defaulters with an opportunity to receive a community-based penalty instead of serving a custodial sentence.
  • Imposing discipline, firm and reliable supervision and constructive activities.
The SAO is intended to be a low cost Order requiring minimum assessment and participation in group activity. Successful completion of the Order discharges the fine. Potential attendees are not assessed for suitability pre-sentence but their consent is required. The SAO is intended to provide a time penalty in substitution for a fine. Disciplinary procedures are instigated for failure to comply with requirements, including lack of punctuality, failure to attend and failure to perform an activity satisfactorily.
The aims of the research were to monitor the establishment of the schemes, their operational effectiveness and efficiency; assess their impact on sentencing practice and assess the value of national guidelines. The research focused on the early stages of the pilot schemes.
The Pilot Schemes
The pilot SAO schemes were based in the sheriff courts in Ayr, Dundee, Perth, Inverness, Dingwall and Tain and in Perth and Dundee District Courts. The Perth schemes were introduced shortly after the others.
Different areas took different approaches to the SAO, reflecting to some extent their different demographic features.
The South Ayrshire Scheme
This scheme was staffed by a SAO Organiser and a SAO Assistant who reported to the District Co-ordinator (Offenders) in the Social Work Department. Activities were provided in Ayr, Cumnock and Girvan. There was a 10 hour core module of educational activities. Local agencies provided further in-depth sessions for offenders on longer Orders. Activities included advice on debt and money; attitudes and offending behaviour; employment and training; assertiveness; first aid and community involvement.
The Tayside Scheme
In Tayside, SAO staff in the Social Work Department retained statutory responsibility for the Order whilst APEX (1) managed the Order and provided and delivered the service. The SAO staff comprised two social workers and one social work assistant who reported to the Principal Officer (Offenders). APEX provided two professional staff and administrative support. The scheme covered the mainly urban catchment areas of Dundee and Perth. Two stages of core module were available. Stage I involved welfare rights, money management, debt counselling and employment guidance. After assessment, offenders on longer Orders went into core modules in more depth; some proceeded to Stage II modules involving constructive use of time (eg. computer skills) and unpaid work.
The Highland Scheme
The Highland scheme was managed by the Area Team Leader (Development) Offender Services, to whom two social work staff reported. The staff, based in Inverness and Invergordon, were responsible for SAOs and Community Service Orders. Orders were supervised by Community Service supervisors and were subject to the same reporting structures and other procedures. Only unpaid work was provided, but on different days to those provided for CSO attendees. Work included painting and decorating; furniture restoration; gardening and chopping firewood.
The Impact of the SAO on Sentencing Practices
Data on fine default procedures were collected from court records for a period from 1989 (before the introduction of the schemes) until the end of the research period in January 1993. Whilst there are indications of trends in the data, it is important to note that a considerably larger number of cases would need to be accumulated before more definitive statements could be made about the impact of the SAO on sentencing practice.
  • Over the research period, more than 100 SAOs were made by the courts, accounting for approximately 15% of fine defaulters attending those courts.
  • Dundee Sheriff Court had the lowest proportion of fine defaulters attending court who were given a SAO (7%). This compares with 13% in the Highland courts, 15% in Ayr Sheriff Court and 16% in Dundee District Court.
  • The proportion of defaulters who were given a custodial sentence in Ayr Sheriff Court dropped markedly during the pilot period (from 25% in 1991 to 9% in the pilot period).
  • In Dundee District Court, levels of defaulters given a custodial sentence fluctuated between 1% and 4%.
The proportion of defaulters given a custodial sentence in the area covered by the Highland courts dropped from 12% in 1991 to 8% during the pilot period.
There was no apparent trend in the proportion of defaulters ordered to pay their fine by a certain date before and after the introduction of the pilot schemes.
In all the courts, the proportion of offenders given the alternative of imprisonment by the court (implemented immediately should the accused default) increased in all the courts, except Dundee Sheriff Court, after the introduction of the schemes. The proportion of such cases remained the same in Dundee Sheriff Court.
The Work of the Pilot SAO Schemes
Number of Orders
During the pilot period (between 3 and 6 months of the operation of the different schemes) 107 SAOs were imposed. Even when the length of time of operation of the different schemes was accounted for, courts differed in the rate at which SAOs were imposed. Expressed as the number of SAOs made per 100 defaulters attending court, rates varied from around 15 in Ayr Sheriff Court and Dundee District Court to roughly 6 at Perth and Dundee Sheriff Courts.
The number of Orders actually made by the courts was substantially lower than that anticipated by social work managers. This is attributed to the probably inevitable slow start-up rate when new disposals are introduced. Such changes involve new practices and SAO staff attempted to remind sentencers and defence agents of the existence of the SAO. Being present in court was felt by some staff to help ensure a steady flow of Orders.
Length of Orders
Over all the schemes, the majority of Orders (62%) were imposed for periods of 30 hours or less. Twenty six per cent of Orders were for 20 hours; 23% for 30 hours and 21% for 60 hours. In the Dundee and Highland courts, Orders of 20 hours were most common; in Ayr, 30 hour Orders were most frequently given; whilst in the Perth courts, 60 hours was the most common length of order.
The Tariff System
Sentencers in most courts operated a tariff system for Orders of about one hour for each £5 of outstanding fine. Sentencers in Ayr reported that they did not operate a tariff, but would give more hours if the offence was serious or the balance of fine outstanding was large.
Characteristics of Fine Defaulters
Compared with those given a custodial sentence for default, fine defaulters who were given a SAO were more likely to be female, they were also more likely to be younger than those given a custodial sentence. Comparative data on previous custodial experience were limited, but it appeared that in Ayr Sheriff Court offenders who received a SAO had less prior experience of custody or detention than those imprisoned for default. Over two-thirds of offenders given a SAO had previously been fined and between a quarter and a third had experience of either prison, Community Service or probation. Almost half had no previous sentence.
National guidelines on the operation of SAOs outline the circumstances under which an attendee can be acceptably absent (eg. certified ill-health or unforeseen work or family responsibilities). The number of unacceptable absences during the research period was low. As a rate per 100 completed hours, unacceptable absence rates were 3 in Highland and Ayr; 6 in Dundee District Court; 8 in Dundee Sheriff Court and 27 in the Perth courts.
Evaluation of the Pilot Schemes
The SAO as an Alternative to Custody
Many sentencers reported using the SAO as an alternative to a custodial sentence and SAO staff estimated that approximately three-quarters of SAOs were instead of a custodial sentence. Over a third of offenders who were interviewed thought that they would have received a custodial sentence. In Ayr, the introduction of the SAO was followed by a drop in the proportion of fine defaulters given a custodial sentence.
Providing an Opportunity to Receive a Community-Based Penalty
Clearly, those awarded a SAO were provided with such an opportunity. However, not all sentencers were aware of the SAO and some were not in favour of this disposal. It could be argued that offenders appearing before such sentencers were provided with a limited opportunity to receive a community-based sentence for default. SAO staff had taken steps to ensure that sentencers and defence agents were reminded of the existence of the SAO.
Imposition of Discipline and Reliable Supervision
SAO staff reported that National Guidelines on the operation of SAOs were strictly interpreted. Non attendees were visited during the same day of absence or within 24 hours, where possible. Staff used their discretion to breach offenders where it was felt the threat of breach might motivate the offender to complete the Order. During the research period there were few examples of unacceptable behaviour or lack of punctuality. Sentencers were generally satisfied with the level of supervision and the operation of breach proceedings, although most felt it was too early to make a proper assessment of these aspects of the SAO.
(1) APEX Scotland is a specialist agency offering employment and employment-related services to offenders, ex-offenders and young people at risk.
The Scottish Office has recently published a consultation document concerning plans to extend the use of the SAO as a sanction for fine default. The full report of the evaluation of the pilot SAO schemes is published by the Central Research Unit of The Scottish Office. Copies of the report are available priced £5.00.
Cheques should be made payable to The Scottish Office and addressed to:
The Librarian,
The Scottish Office,
Room 1/44,
New St Andrew's House,
EDINBURGH, EH1 3TG (Tel: 031-244-4806).

The report can also be ordered online

Further copies of this Research Findings paper or information about the Central Research Unit programme can be obtained by contacting:
The Central Research Unit,
The Scottish Office Home and Health Department,
Room 306,
St Andrew's House,