Stole a chocolate milkshake to the value of £1.25 belonging to Iceland. Committed to prison for two weeks forthwith. Ordered to pay £1.25 compensation and £150 criminal courts charge.
A woman, 30, of no fixed address. Convicted of begging in a car park and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £30 fine and a £20 victim surcharge.
A man, 26, attempts suicide by stepping in front of a car. Sentenced to a 12-month community order, a 28-day curfew from 6pm until 6am and told to pay the driver’s insurance excess of £425, along with a £180 criminal courts charge.
These are just three of what amounts to thousands of cases where people are being ordered to pay a controversial new charge which penalises the poor and encourages the innocent to plead guilty.
Since April 2015 magistrates and judges have been told they must impose a mandatory criminal courts charge of up to £1,200 on anyone convicted of an offence, whatever their circumstances might be. This is on top of fines, compensation orders, victims surcharges and prosecution costs. There are even plans to charge interest and people can be sent to prison if they can’t pay.
In a magistrates’ court, the charge rises from £150 for pleading guilty to a summary offence to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. In the crown court, the charge stands at £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.
The Howard League has launched the Criminal Charge campaign to highlight the iniquity of this policy, and we have labelled the measure both unfair and unrealistic.
The charge is unfair because these escalating costs put pressure on people to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity, even if they have not committed an offence. It is unrealistic because the mandatory nature of the charge means that sentencers must impose it even when it is clear the person before them does not have the means to pay. The Howard League has been highlighting dozens of cases like those above on social media, which show how the charge is making a mockery of the justice system.
With their hands tied, sentencers must preside over perverse outcomes. We have seen cases where the victim has not received compensation because of the charge, where the Crown Prosecution Service has lost out on costs, where people who are homeless and begging, addicted to drugs and alcohol or with mental health problems, are being given charges when it is unclear how they will ever make the payment.
The result is a wave of magistrates resigning in protest, while judges are reported to be openly despairing in court as to the wisdom of the charge.
The latest quarterly court statistics, which include the first three months of the charge’s operation, do not tease out the initial impact of the policy – although it is unclear what is stopping Ministry of Justice officials from doing so. A comparison with the previous quarter however suggests that millions of pounds may have been imposed with only a tiny fraction of that money so far collected.
Members of Parliament on the justice select committee have initiated an inquiry that will in part look at the criminal courts charge. The Ministry of Justice plans a review, but not until 2018. We cannot have three years of this pernicious policy eating away at the credibility of the justice system. It is for that reason the Howard League is calling for an immediate review, and the suspension of the charge while that review takes place.
There is a broader point however, which will remain whether or not the Ministry of Justice persists with the criminal courts charge. Look again at the cases at the beginning of this article and ask yourself: why are the criminal courts dealing with these individuals in the first place?
All around the country, courts are being closed. Those courts that remain are often in a pitiful state. The prisons are overcrowded and underfunded, becoming dangerous places where violence and enforced indolence is the order of the day. Our justice system is creaking at the seams, and yet we are still flooding that system with people who simply shouldn’t be there.
With the Ministry of Justice facing further budget cuts of between 25 to 40 per cent, this is simply no longer tenable. The department’s new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has a choice to make. Rather than attempt to make the impoverished pay for the privilege of their punishment, why not go back to first principles and design the system afresh?