Lawyers back magistrate suspended for paying asylum seeker’s court charge

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By Thomas Connelly on

Axe this “laughably unfair” charge, urge members of legal profession

Members of the legal profession have rushed to the support of a senior magistrate who was suspended for paying £40 towards a destitute asylum seeker’s £180 court charge — and his since quit his role on the bench.

Former Leicestershire magistrate Nigel Allcoat was subjected to a judicial investigation after trying to assist the asylum seeker, who was unable to work legally in Britain.

He attempted to intervene when he discovered that the unnamed man — who is in his 20s and was before the court over an unpaid fine — had only a welfare card of just £35 as a source of financial support.

Allcoat has since resigned over the incident, prompting outrage among lawyers on Twitter. Among others, Pump Court barrister Matthew Scott and 36 Bedford Row’s Rebecca Herbert have both spoken out about Allcoat’s exit — with the former making a plea to Lord Chancellor Michael Gove to axe the “laughably unfair” court charge.

New punitive mandatory court charges, implemented by the then Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, came into effect in April. The charges — that can be anywhere up to £1,200 — are seen as a way of ensuring those convicted pay towards the operation of the criminal justice system.

The asylum seeker first appeared in court back in June of this year. On that occasion, a friend who occasionally helped him stepped in and paid a victim surcharge of £60. Unable to pay the fine in full, the man subsequently appeared in court again in August — this time in front of Allcoat.

Speaking to the Leicester Mercury this morning, Allcoat expressed his frustration at the asylum seeker’s situation:

If he was found with, or earned money, he would also break the law and thus jeopardise his status as an asylum seeker. I was appalled that he should be in such a catch 22 situation, as which ever way he went he would break the law.

Allcoat described how it was his job to stop re-offending. So he opened his wallet and paid the fine himself, in what the 65 year-old described as a “pure humanitarian act”. Shortly after Allcoat was suspended and, having reflected on the situation, then decided to walk. He explained:

To be taken to task in such a way for what I considered a humanitarian act beggars belief. I resigned, not over the court charges, but over the way the situation has been handled by the court administration.

Dozens of magistrates have quit in protest at the new charge since it was introduced.

Speaking to the Law Society Gazette last month, Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates Association, explained that his members were not opposed to the fines in principle. However magistrates were concerned that the implementation of the charges had been rushed and would disproportionately affect poor defendants.

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. The legislation and guidelines to magistrates and judges make it crystal clear that the charge is separate to the sentence and should not be considered as a mitigating factor. Magistrates and judges are aware that they can order offenders to pay in affordable instalments linked to their ability to pay. They do not have to order prompt payment in full.