Criminal courts charge – a hidden tax on the poor or just criminals getting what they deserve?

If you read the court reports we carry, you will have noticed an extra payment that convicted people — or criminals, as they are known — have to pay.

Introduced earlier this year, the new criminal courts charge means that people convicted of offences will have to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case. The fees are not means-tested and start at £150, which is what most people will pay.

The fees are paid on top of fines, compensation orders (and legal charges) and are not linked to the sentence given, with a minimum charge for magistrates’ courts and the maximum level for crown court cases.

Skipping at random through a court list I found criminal courts charges of £180 (carrying a screwdriver as a weapon) and £150 apiece for driving while disqualified, drink driving and criminal damage.

Criminals already pay the victim surcharge — a penalty not paid directly to victims but distributed through the Victim and Witness General Fund — and now they have to pay towards the court costs.

I realise that criminals aren’t going to attract much sympathy — but that’s my point. It seems to be a fairly hefty tax rolled out with little public opposition, imposed on a class of people who can’t afford it.

Now I know all the arguments. I’ve sat through enough court cases to know that most people who go court are guilty, and are in court because they’ve broken the law.

All their excuses can be countered — there’s plenty of poor people who don’t steal, and plenty of people who struggle with life and don’t take drugs.

No-one makes you drink and thump your wife or get behind the wheel and drive. There’s the old saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time, and (bad language ahead) many people who commit crime are simply just little shits.

But even if someone uses poverty as an excuse to steal, they’re still poor and whacking an extra £150 debt on them is not going to make them either better off or less likely to offend.

The Government itself says that it’s on the side of people “who work hard and want to get on” and that those who commit crime must pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.

The trouble is, however high the moral ground as regards criminals, that seems to be the view of someone who’s never been poor, and, moreover, the point of view of a politician who’ found a backdoor tax that no “hard working families” are going to oppose.

The figures floating about also suggest that making a guilty plea will save a defendant money, which can’t be a good thing.

Thanks to plea-bargaining in the States, the outcome of court cases is largely out of the hands of judges and instead rests with prosecutors. They use the threat of long sentences to cut deals — even an innocent man might decide it’s better to cop a short sentence with a guilty plea than risk a long stretch by pleading not guilty.

We don’t want the same over here, where fear of costs pushes people to a guilty plea.

For summary (magistrates only) offences, the charge for a guilty plea is £150. For a not guilty plea and subsequent conviction, this rises to £520.

The charge for pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court to a triable either way offence — one than can go to trial at either the magistrates or Crown court — is £180, but the charge for conviction after a not guilty plea at a magistrates’ court is £1,000. That’s an £820 difference — would a poor person with a minor record decide to plead guilty to avoid the risk of a hefty charge?

Pleading guilty in the magistrates’ court is cheaper both for summary offences (£150 v £520) and in indictable ones (£820 cheaper).

There’s actually little difference between a guilty plea and a trial in the Crown court £900 v £1,200, though the former figure will prevent people pleading not guilty at magistrates and then guilty at Crown, which is actually a good thing.

Maybe I’m being too cautious but I don’t like the idea of a hefty backdoor tax imposed on people most of us don’t care for, or for making poor people pay it, though I should stress that if they go straight after being fined, the court can quash the criminal courts charge.

The idea of a financial inducement to plead guilty also seems wrong. True, most of those who go to court are found guilty but even a fair amount of people taking a conviction because they don’t want to risk being hit in the pocket does not seem conducive to justice.

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