All Conservative-led administrations have always talked the language of fiscal responsibility, but proceeded to implement policies at great cost to the taxpayer, for their own short-term gratification. The quick-fire sale of national assets have provided clear examples, as have measures such as the Bedroom Tax. But it is in reforms to our justice system that the most pernicious mistakes have been laid bare.
The criminal courts charge highlights both the incompetent and intolerable reality of these reforms. Introduced via the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, charges start at £150 for a guilty plea in the Magistrates Courts and rise to £1,200 for a conviction in Crown Court on indictment.
Criminal court charges create 'perverse incentives' for the innocent to plead guilty - Bar Council
The charge is intolerable because of its indiscriminate application. There is a real risk that defendants, often in need of state support to survive, may plead guilty to avoid the extortionate risks involved in proving their innocence.
In 21st century Britain, we should be appalled at any miscarriage of justice, especially where defendants forego their freedoms due to financial constraints. However, the work of criminal justice specialists reveals an ever-growing body of similar cases. If we are truly serious about upholding access to justice as a cornerstone of our society, we must demand revisions to this clear affront to a fair trial.
As well as posing a clear risk for defendants’ rights, the charge may not raise the revenue promised by Michael Gove. In addition to the barriers to justice, once guilty, the newly condemned defendants are often unable to pay it back. The Criminal Justice Alliance note that in some Magistrates’ courts, around 8 in 10 people are destitute or on benefits. It is therefore likely that this proposal will add to the uncollected monies from criminals within our justice system. Out of £5 million worth of charges already imposed, it is estimated that less than £300,000 has been collected.
People who don’t pay the charge will end up being sent to prison for non-payment – this will only increase the costs to the taxpayer, and the Government’s own Impact Assessment has estimated that the charge will lead to an extra £5million a year in spending on prison places. Far from raising money, the most notable consequence of this charge will be greater levels of anxiety for those subject to it.
Take the example of a man who recently faced the Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court in October. Redundant and experiencing depression, he had stolen a bottle of gin from a shop on the day of his father’s funeral. His evident remorse led the judge to grant conditional discharge. However, the costs then imposed amounted to over £300, the mandatory courts charge accounting for half. It was clear to those in the room that such costs would never be paid back, but would only create more distress to such a fragile individual. Is it any wonder that over 50 Magistrates have resigned in protest at this policy?
During his tenure as Education Secretary, Michael Gove purported to champion ‘British Values’, with access to justice a central focus. He now finds himself responsible for a policy that is condemning innocent people to guilt, due to their lack of money to prove otherwise. It is my deepest hope that my Westminster Hall debate today will lead the Government to think again about this travesty of a policy.
Ahead of today's commons debate Bar Council chairman, Alistair MacDonald QC, warns that the criminal courts charge 'is not in the interest of justice' and points to a lack of evidence as to whether the Government is on track to raise £265 million it proposed to bring by 2020. Read the full comment