Criminal courts charge must be abolished ‘as soon as possible’
20 November 2015
Originally published in The Guardian
The criminal courts charge, a mandatory payment of up to £1,200 imposed on all convicted defendants, must be abolished “as soon as possible”, the Conservative-dominated justice select committee has urged.
The controversial costs create “perverse incentives” for defendants to plead guilty; are a “grossly disproportionate” punishment for many offences; leave no discretion for judges or magistrates to vary the charge and undermine compensation awards to victims, according to the MPs.
If the Ministry of Justice refuses to scrap the measure then MPs say it should “radically reduce the levels of the criminal courts charge” and at least give courts the freedom to decide whether to enforce the penalty and alter sums in accordance with individuals’ ability to pay.
The Commons committee says it has “grave misgivings about whether the charge as currently framed is compatible with the principles of justice”. Only a very small proportion of fines imposed have been collected, it believes.
The scathing conclusions are the latest in a series of public humiliations for the previous justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who introduced the charge in the final months of the last parliament.
The current justice secretary, Michael Gove, has already reversed many of Grayling’s reforms – such as the ban on prisoners receiving books from their families – and made it clear he would like to do away with the highly unpopular courts charge.
While the select committee’s report will provide further political cover for that manoeuvre, Gove is still locked in discussions with the Treasury on the next round of spending cuts and has to find alternative sources of funding. One suggestion has been for a tax on the profits of City law firms. Grayling’s charge was projected to provide a net revenue by 2023–24 of between £80m and £160m a year.
The justice select committee questions “the effect on respect for the legal process” of mass non-payment. Every witnesses who submitted evidence on the charge to the inquiry – including many senior judges – were critical of the system; only the MoJ was in favour.
Bob Neill, the Conservative MP and barrister who chairs the justice committee, said: “The evidence we have received has prompted grave misgivings about the operation of the charge, and whether, as currently framed, it is compatible with the principles of justice.
“In many cases it is grossly disproportionate, it fetters judicial discretion, and creates perverse incentives – not only for defendants to plead guilty but for sentencers to reduce awards of compensation and prosecution costs. It appears unlikely to raise the revenue which the government predicts.
“It creates a range of serious problems and benefits no one. We would urgeMichael Gove to act on our main recommendation and abolish it as soon as possible.”
More than 50 magistrates have resigned in protest. Some courts have been handing down absolute discharges to avoid imposing it.
The mandatory criminal courts charge varies from £150 for those who plead guilty at magistrates court to up to £1,200 for those who are convicted following trial in the crown court. It has to be paid in addition to any fines, compensation costs, prosecution costs and the victim’s surcharge.
The committee regretted that the minister for the courts and legal aid, Shailesh Vara , declined to be questioned by MPs.
The Howard League, a penal reform charity, provided a list of cases referred to by MPs, including the example of a 32-year-old woman who admitted stealing a four-pack of Mars Bars worth 75p. The report recorded her sayingshe had stolen the item because she “had not eaten in days” after her benefits were sanctioned. She was fined £73, ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs, a £20 victim surcharge, and 75p compensation.
The government’s original aim was to require adult offenders to contribute to the costs of the justice system. But even the Crown Prosecution Service in evidence to the committee said that it was “concerned that the courts charge will displace the prosecution costs award, which the CPS uses to recover part of the costs of bringing a prosecution case. If this pattern continues over time it will have an adverse effect on the CPS budget impinging on the organisations ability to effectively prosecute cases.”
The Sentencing Council providing guidelines for judges and chaired by Lord Justice Treacy also cautioned MPs that: “If the offender has insufficient resources to pay the total amount, the order of priority is: compensation; victim surcharge; fine; costs. The [criminal courts] charge, which is not part of the sentence, runs counter to that well-established guidance.”
Responding to the report, Malcolm Richardson, national chairman of the Magistrates’ Association representing magistrates in England and Wales, said: “Our members will be encouraged by this news and hopefully it signifies the beginning of the end for the charge as it currently stands. My post bag attests to how strongly magistrates feel about the charge and its perverse influence on fairness in court. Because Mr Gove has shown he’s willing to reform justice policy, we now eagerly await the government’s response.”
Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said: “All the evidence to date shows the criminal courts charge was unfair and undermined the principles of fairness that our courts are rightfully respected for across the world. Putting financial pressure on a defendant to plead guilty – whatever the evidence and nature of the case – bears the hallmarks of a US-style plea bargaining system.”
An MoJ spokesperson said: “As the justice secretary has said, we note the concerns which have been expressed and are keeping the operation of the charge under review.”