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Ministry of Justice slaps penniless tramps with whopping court charges to bolster coffers

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Petty shoplifters and the homeless are routinely hit with punitive charges on top of other fines and costs

injustice

Desperate examples of the monetisation of Britain’s criminal justice system emerged today from a prisoners’ rights charity.

The Howard League for Penal Reform published a depressing list of petty thieves who have been forced to pay the mandatory criminal courts charge since revised rules were implemented last April.

Under the rules, the Ministry of Justice has ordered magistrates and judges to impose fees of up to £1,200 on anyone convicted of an offence — regardless of that person’s circumstances. That charge comes on top of other levies, such as fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and costs.

And the message to convicted defendants is clear: fail to pay, go to jail.

Featuring on the MoJ’s hit list, according to the charity, was a roll call of arguably the most vulnerable in society. Hardly career criminals with a form sheets for burglary and robbery, they were mostly petty shoplifters and persistent beggars:

• A 26-year-old homeless man, who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge.

• A 30-year-old homeless woman was convicted in her absence of begging in a car park in Coventry, West Midlands. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £30 fine and a £20 victim surcharge.

• A 20-year-old man who was living in a hostel in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, kicked out at a flowerpot after being stabbed with a needle by a fellow resident. He became homeless. He admitted criminal damage, which placed him in breach of two conditional discharges that were imposed on him for thefts. He was fined £70 and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £20 victim surcharge.

• A 37-year-old woman who stole shampoo worth £2.39 from a shop in Banbury, Oxfordshire, was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £35 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.

The list is depressingly long. And, according to Howard League chief executive Frances Crook:

These cases are a snapshot of a failing criminal justice system. Up and down the country, people are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances.

Crook continued, slamming the government:

Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts. With more budget cuts on the way, ministers should be looking to shrink the system, not trapping more people in it for absurd offences.

14 Comments

Not Amused

Introducing this was pretty indefensible given that we know that magistrates courts have something like a 97% conviction rate.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

Because most people enter a guilty plea –
So as bald statement this is misleading.

(1)(0)

Curious

About 81 or 82% plead guilty. The conviction rate on those that go to trial is about 60%.

Magistrates did their best to oppose this when it was proposed and a number have resigned rather than impose the charge.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I volunteer at my firm’s pro bono clinic every few weeks. I’ve been increasingly seeing a situation similar to the one that is described above, but in housing benefits. It goes like this:

Client’s circumstances are deemed by the local council to have changed and this results in a retrospectively applied deduction to housing benefit. The retrospectivity is almost never the fault of the client: for example, it can happen because the council belatedly wakes up to a disclosure made by the client months ago about their finding a low-paid job, or because the client “fails” a disability assessment and loses housing benefit as a result.

The client is then slapped with a bill by the council for the months of accumulated overpaid housing benefits, often in the order of over a thousand pounds. The client’s housing benefit stops being paid (after all, the debt has to be clawed back), but the rent is still owned. The client (who is poor, given that she receives housing benefit) then spirals into debt as she cannot afford to pay the rent unaided.

The client is almost invariably in Council-owned accomodation, or housing association-owned accomodation. Neither are particularly likely to evict, as this impacts on the borough’s homelessness statistics. What is likely to happen however is that the client will go bankrupt and start again.

The council does not get its money and, indeed, must spend more funds on an often-futile enforcement process, the client is subject to stress and is put off behaviours such as getting a job and declaring it to the council. The client’s credit rating is also shot to hell, which makes them less likely to be able to rent privately or buy a house.

I am at a loss to explain who this is supposed to help the client, or how this is supposed to save the government money. In low moments, I wonder whether, in fact, the cruelty of the situation *is* the point.

(19)(0)

Not Amused

Not my area of law and only trying to help … But can you not use a Lipkin v Gorman style defence of “i spent all your mistaken payment on stuff I needed because I thought the money was legitimately mine” ?

It does sound unjust to plunge poor people in to debt because of mistaken payment by a useless bureaucracy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

There is an appeal mechanism, but it’s got a one-month limitation period. You can fight the recovery within the limitation period, but only if you are in time and can show that there was no failure to disclose and that the person can’t have been reasonably expected to realise that there was an overpayment.

The combination of the short limitation period (it’s often too late by the time the clients find their way to the right advice centre) and the fact that the right form might not have been filled in or the person “should have known” that, given that their circumstances improved, their benefits should have been clawed back at a high marginal rate, make it hard to win. The lack of resources of volunteers to run a full-time case and the usual lack of sophistication of clients in that situation make the situation even worse. (Volunteer pro bono and you’ll realise how many otherwise intelligent people can’t write a letter. Yes, they can read and write, but they find it very difficult to write a letter stating that X has happened, Y should have happened (and the reasons for it) and Z is required by a particular date as a result.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I work for insurers and its always the first thing on your claimant mind – only pursue those with funds to satisfy a judgment. A worthless order is bloody pointless. I understand the deterrent factor of high penalties but they must be applied realistically.

(4)(0)

a shadowy figure

how disgusting. and since most of these people aren’t able to pay the fines they will be sent to prison. where they will cost the tax payers thousands of pounds and make prison overcrowding even worse. really stupid and vindictive, i’m shocked.

(1)(1)

Techfool

Time for a whipround!

(0)(1)

Boh Dear

Time for a revolution…

(3)(0)

RoughSleeper

I think that it another sideways snipe at us, blackening our character and our integrity, branding us as being thieves, & shoplifters, with cap in hand, begging for drugs, and wanting a freebie lifestyle, with no work, or comebacks for crime.

Non of my friends do any of this, and they get no benefits.

This is more the behaviour of the people that pretend to be us, for the advantages that they can gain from it.

Stop using us for your own agendas.

All of you!

(8.7648 x 10K hours expertise, Boots on the ground, 3652 Days, @ 1.5389 pence/day)

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Put them in the Tower – then charge for tourist visits.
It’ll pay for itself within days.
Come on guys lets think outside the box here.
Bit of creativity and problemo solved.

(0)(0)

RoughSleeper

And, thankyou for your descriptions of us in the title, as Tramps.

Perhaps, this, in itself, says whether your support for us was your true agenda.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Yeah LC that’s outrageous –
Come on think of a better term.
Like ‘rough sleeper’ say.

(1)(0)

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