Call for review of new court charge

A couple of weeks ago we commented unfavourably on the new criminal courts charge, a cynical way of taxing folk for whom most of us will have little sympathy.

The charge means that people convicted of offences will have to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case, paying less if they plead guilty. The fees are not means-tested and start at £150.

The new penalty is on top of fines, compensation orders, court costs and the existing victim charge and is not linked to the sentence given. There’s a minimum charge for magistrates’ courts and a higher level for Crown court cases.

The Government’s excuse is 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.

Logically that does not make sense. We don’t charge alcoholics, the obese and smokers extra for their health care on the grounds that their illnesses are self-inflicted. The argument — and it’s a fair one — is that boozers and smokers have paid for the NHS through taxation and deserve their treatment.

Similarly, most people are taxpayers at some point in their lives and the court system is funded through the tax system. The same argument surely applies.

If you’re going to charge users of state services then at least be consistent — charge library users extra for borrowing books, or walkers who go hiking in the national parks. Charge people who use the NHS, or least give a rebate to healthy who people who don’t make demands.

Instead, a class of people for whom no-one feels much sympathy — crims — are being whacked with an extortionate tax on criminality.

It’s not just us who have been critical of the new tax: there are have been reports of magistrates resigning, and now the Howard League for Penal Reform has launched a campaign for an “urgent review” of the charge. The Government has said it will review the charge after three years.

The Howard League has access to national data and has produced examples of how the new charge works: a teenager who stole sweets and ice cream worth £5, a woman found begging in a car park and a Stoke man who kicked a flower-pot after being stabbed are among the more unfair cases it cites.

It said the criminal courts charge “penalises the poor and encourages the innocent to plead guilty”. The charge puts pressure on people to plead guilty, as it rises from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates’ court to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.
The charge at crown court is £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. There are plans to charge interest.

Government ministers — the ones who claim mileage for walking across the road — have described the charges as “quite modest”, clearly seeing costs ranging from around £150 to £1,200 as pocket change.

Among the league’s examples were a homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, who was given a conditional discharge but had to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge.

The Stoke man was living in a hostel and kicked a flower-pot after being stabbed with a needle by a fellow resident. He then became homeless, appeared in court to admit criminal damage, and was fined £70 and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £20 victim surcharge.

One case cited was that of a person who wrote to their local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, for advice about the charge.
The person was due to appear at Newcastle Crown Court for an offence he said he did not commit. “I had planned on pleading not guilty (but) I have been told that if I am found guilty I will have over £1,000 in costs to pay. Is this true?”

The Exeter Express and Echo reported a case where a judge was forced to impose a £900 charge on a homeless man who had admitted shoplifting. s the defendant was led away, the judge asked the courtroom: “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”

The Howard League says the charge removes discretion from magistrates, though this is not strictly true: we’ve recently seen a case where a man was given no actual punishment for his (minor) offence but did have the new charge to pay — while magistrates cannot avoid imposing the criminal courts charge, they do have discretion over fines.

As we said a couple of weeks ago, people should not commit crime. In its defence, the Government has said the new charge will be paid last (after compensation, fines and prosecution costs), and if people go straight the criminal courts charge can be waived. (Though if you’re more affluent and pay it all off in one go, that presumably does not apply, introducing even more unfairness into the system).

If you want to find out more, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has a blog up at howardleague.org/francescrookblog/bringing-back-debtors-prisons/

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