The Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced last week that the controversial criminal courts charge, which has led to the resignations of dozens of magistrates, will be abolished from 24 December 2015.
Since April 2015 the courts have had to impose a charge on all adults convicted of a criminal offence whatever their circumstances might be. The government claimed that the charge could deliver a net revenue of £80m to £160m a year by 2023 – with an annual cost of collection of about £20m and a £5m bill for imprisoning defaulters.
The charges vary depending on which court the defendant’s case is sent to and at what stage of the proceedings they are convicted. For example, in the magistrates’ court defendants are charged £150 for a guilty plea at the first appearance and £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. In the crown court, the charge stands at £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. The charge is imposed on top of fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and costs.
The charge received significant criticism from lawyers, charities, NGOs and magistrates, and it was subsequently reviewed by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, which called for the government to amend or abolish the charge.
One of the main criticisms of the charge is the effect that it has had on defendants’ decisions whether to plead guilty to offences they have not committed because of their fear of being forced to pay a sum they cannot afford. In the evidence given by the Magistrates Association (MA) to the Justice Committee it was reported that some magistrates have had to refuse to accept guilty pleas from defendants when it was clear that the only reason for their plea was the risk of having to pay the charge.
In addition to the unnerving effect the charge has had on some defendants’ decision on how to plead, the charge also faced criticism for making a mockery out of the criminal justice system because the fees are too high, disproportionate to sentences and do not take into account the defendant’s ability to pay. For example, a judge at Exeter Crown Court questioned the viability of the criminal courts charge after imposing a mandatory £900 fee on a homeless shoplifter when there was clearly no way he would ever be able to pay the charge.
The MA evidence also showed that the charge has had an impact on magistrates’ sentencing decisions in order to comply with the principle of totality. Some magistrates reported reducing prosecution costs, victim surcharge and fines in order to compensate for the mandatory criminal court charge.
It is also questionable whether the charge is capable of meeting the government’s aim of making “[people who are convicted] pay their way” and recouping the some of the costs of the criminal justice system. For example, it is estimated that less than £300,000 has been collected of £5m charges imposed. In addition the actual cost of enforcing the charge and the practicalities of trying to collect money from people who do not have anything does not appear to have been fully considered by the government.
In light of the criticisms of the charge Michael Gove laid before parliament on 4 December 2015 an amending statutory instrument which means that as of 24 December 2015, the criminal courts charge will no longer be imposed – which is a welcome decision. However, anyone convicted before 24 December will still need to pay the charge and it is unknown what will come in place of the charge as the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that the Ministry of Justice will consider alternative ways of ensuring that criminals pay their fair share. The ministerial statement by Michael Gove is available here.
The abolition of the criminal courts charge was widely reported in the mainstream media, including by the BBC, the Guardian, the Mirror and the Telegraph. The Howard League for Penal Reform, which campaigned successfully against the criminal courts charge, released this statement welcoming the decision to abolish it.
This article was first published by Young Legal Aid Lawyers.