Review needed over whether criminal courts charge is introducing US-style plea bargaining

Review needed over whether criminal courts charge is introducing US-style plea bargaining

28 September 2015

Originally published in The Solicitors Journal

John van der Luit

Top professor says recent cases suggest charge is making innocent people plead guilty to avoid hefty fines.

The divisive criminal courts charge is ‘unfair’ and has created a ‘legitimacy deficit’ that threatens the right to a fair trial, a top academic has warned.

Since April, magistrates and judges have been required to impose on those convicted of offences a mandatory charge in addition to fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges, and costs, regardless of an individual’s financial circumstances.

At a minimum rate of £150 for a guilty plea and no trial in the magistrates’ court for a summary offence, and a maximum of £1,200 after trial and conviction in the Crown Court, the charge has attracted widespread criticism, including from the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Magistrates Association, and the Law Society.

Approximately 50 magistrates have resigned in protest, with many citing unfair economic pressure on defendants to plead guilty.

Speaking ahead of an event on fairness in courts hosted by justice reform charity the Centre for Justice Innovation, professor Mike Hough, the associate director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck University of London, said the charges do not guarantee a right to a fair trial.

‘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,’ he commented.

‘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.’

Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation said: ‘The emerging evidence of how the criminal court charge is working in practice suggests that it’s undermining defendants’ perceptions of fairness in our courts.

‘Moreover, 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.’

The parliamentary justice select committee has launched an inquiry into the charges. The deadline for submissions for evidence coincides with the fairness in courts event on 30 September.