Punitive court fines ‘undermine respect for the law’
The imposition of mandatory, punitive fines in English and Welsh criminal courts has undermined respect for the law and introduced US-style plea bargaining that results in false convictions, an influential legal thinktank has warned.
The fresh criticism from the Centre for Justice Innovation is the latest in a groundswell of opposition to the criminal courts charge – financial penalties imposed on the convicted by the former justice secretary Chris Grayling.
The charge, introduced in April, ranges from £150 for those pleading guilty in a magistrates court to £1,200 for those found guilty after a crown court trial. It is levied on top of the victims’ surcharge, fines and prosecution costs.
Neither judges nor magistrates have discretion to drop the financial demand. More than 50 magistrates in England and Wales have resigned in protest at the charge, according to the Magistrates Association. Many doubt if much of the charge will ever be collected since a significant number of defendants are too poor to pay.
Parliament’s justice select committee is beginning an inquiry into the charge. The Ministry of Justice has promised to review its impact, but not until after it has been in operation for three years.
In its submission to the committee released on Wednesday, the Centre for Justice Innovation says: “The criminal court charge runs the risk of undermining defendants’ perceptions of fairness in the court process. This, in turn, will undermine their trust in the justice system and their willingness to obey the law in the future.
“Therefore, the criminal courts charge could perversely be storing up trouble for the future – by making courts less fair, it undermines courts’ authority and defendants’ respect for the law.”
Heavy financial penalties are also deterring defendants from fighting cases, the organisation argues, saying: “The criminal court charge is making defendants change their pleas in order to avoid running the risk of incurring excessive penalties.
“This has the hallmarks of a plea bargaining system …. We draw the [justice select] committee’s attention to evidence from the USA [where formal plea bargaining is common practice] that plea bargaining can lead to wrongful convictions, purely on the basis of defendants making rational decisions in the ‘shadow of the trial’.”
Phil Bowen, a former Home Office and MOJ official who is director of the centre, said: “Recent cases in courts around the country suggest it’s making innocent people plead guilty to avoid hefty charges they can’t pay. We urgently need to review whether the charge is introducing US-style plea bargaining via the back door.”
Prof Mike Hough, of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London, who addressed the Centre for Justice Innovation meeting, said: “The charges will be seen by most defendants as arbitrary, onerous and basically unfair. They create a ‘legitimacy deficit’ in the system, felt most keenly by those whose commitment to the rule of law is most tentative.
“What’s more, although the government lawyers must have crawled over case-law covering Article 6 of the European convention on human rights, these charges don’t appear to me to guarantee the right to a fair trial – as the right exists only so long as you can pay for it. Apologists for the charges will doubtless say that payment is in arrears and in instalments, but that’s hardly convincing.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ”It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.
“Offenders can pay in affordable instalments linked to their ability to pay. Magistrates and judges do not have to order prompt payment in full.”
The only discretion a judge or magistrate has is that they can cancel the charge after 12 months if the offender has made the best effort possible to pay it and does not reoffend.
Earlier this week, a senior magistrate in Leicester, Nigel Allcoat who pulled £40 from his own shirt pocket to pay the court fine for a destitute asylum seeker resigned his position after being suspended by authorities.