Innocent people encouraged to plead guilty to avoid excessive court fees, Bar Council warns
Defendants accused of a crime they have not committed may be encouraged to plead guilty to avoid new court charges in criminal cases, the Bar Council has warned ahead of a debate in the House of Lords.
According to the legal professional body, the huge difference in charges imposed on those who have been convicted after a trial, as opposed to those who have admitted their guilt, may well influence how they plead. Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar, said: “Faced with the prospect of a court charge that could be significantly higher than the penalties for a particular offence, defendants who are innocent may have little choice but to plead guilty simply to avoid the financial risk of having to pay a hefty court fee if they are convicted after a trial. No one should be influenced by the extent of a court charge in making their decision about whether to plead guilty or have a trial.
“There is no discretion allowed in the case of court charges. A parent who steals food as a last resort to feed their children when there has been a glitch in their benefit payments would face exactly the same court charge as a member of a professional shoplifting gang. That cannot be right and the extent of the unfairness of these charges is demonstrated by the fact that 50 magistrates have resigned rather face the prospect of having to order defendants to pay these charges. .
“Many of those appearing before the courts lead chaotic lives, are often homeless and will simply be unable to pay. Not only that, but the imposition of a substantial charge is likely to damage the prospects of rehabilitation of the offender in the community. People who have been convicted by the courts face great difficulty in obtaining employment after punishment and the fact that they face these charges, whether their punishment is to be undertaken in the community or on their release from prison, is likely to have very serious and damaging effects on the partners, spouses and children of defendants.
“Evidence shows that the Ministry of Justice has faced very difficult and costly problems in recovering fines and there is nothing to suggest that they will be any more successful in their ability to recover these court charges. Resources spent on recovering payments will be diverted from other, more pressing needs and the likelihood is that the costs of seeking to recover the charges will outweigh the sums recovered.”
Courts are given no discretion to take into account a defendant’s ability to pay.
The charges, which can be as high as £1,200, will, on many occasions, be significantly greater than the penalties for the offence.
The Bar Council has submitted evidence to the Justice Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the impact of increases in court fees and charges.
The House of Lords is to debate Lord Beecham’s motion on Wednesday 14 October to regret the regulations, which were laid before Parliament by the Coalition Government earlier this year.
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