The criminal courts charge, the brainchild of ex-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, has been dealt yet another heavy blow, this time in a damning government report released today.
The no holds barred report was penned by the Justice Committee — a House of Commons select committee made up of MPs, including lawyers Alberto Costa, Andy McDonald, and Victoria Prentis — and it’s pretty brutal.
The criminal courts charge was introduced by section 54 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, a statute introduced to the Commons by the much-hated all-round pantomime villain Grayling, who is also famously responsible for launching the onslaught on legal aid funding.
The Act imposes a mandatory charge of £150-£1200 on guilty offenders when convicted. This money goes towards the court system’s overall running costs, such as paying for judges.
The charge has been met with continued, persistent criticism from the legal profession. The likes of Lady Hale and the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd have been very vocal in their concerns, and legal commentator David Allen Green urged his Twitter followers to petition the government about the charge.
Have a look at this petition and what it says about the Criminal Courts Charge. Support it if you can. https://t.co/Sy0Ansm9hj
— David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen) October 16, 2015
And the criticisms just keep coming.
The Justice Committee has come out with guns blazing in 13 pages of boundless assault on Grayling and his charge. Attacking the law from all angles, the Committee has called for an urgent shake up:
We would not mourn the early abolition of the criminal courts charge and we recommend that legislation to effect that repeal should be brought forward.
And the reasons for doing so are endless.
It is, according to the report, “grossly disproportionate”. The criminal court charge is mandatory and fixed — it attaches to all criminal convictions, and cannot be adjusted to reflect the offender’s means. Because the numbers have already been decided by parliament, judges and magistrates have no discretion and no way of resolving this.
The Committee gives the sad example of woman who pleaded guilty to stealing Mars Bars worth 75p:
She said she stole the item because she ‘had not eaten in days’ after her benefits were sanctioned. She was fined £73, ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs, a £20 victim surcharge and 75p compensation.
The value of the charge depends on the plea entered by the defendant. Guilty pleas mean smaller fines — sometimes much smaller. An offender that pleads guilty to a summary offence in the Magistrates’ Court will have to pay £150. If the same offender pleads not guilty, but is found guilty anyway, he’ll be charged £520.
The Committee is very concerned that this is drawing innocent people to guilty pleas. It states:
We are concerned that the charge is having effects which are inimical to the interests of justice, creating perverse incentives which are affecting defendant and sentencer behaviour.
This has important implications in the human rights context. The Howard League claims:
[The charge] undermines the right to a fair trial as it may put pressure on people to plead guilty, even if they have not committed an offence.
The situation is so critical that angry magistrates are even quitting the bench in protest. The report states:
The Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association told us that over 50 magistrates had resigned because of their objections to the charge.
The message from the Committee is clear: enough’s enough. Chair Bob Neill urges new Justice Secretary Michael Gove to right the wrongs of his predecessor and scrap the charge:
[The charge] creates a range of serious problems and benefits no one. We would urge Michael Gove to act on our main recommendation and abolish it as soon as possible.