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Criminal courts charge piles woe on defendants stuck in ‘medieval’ justice system

Ministry of Justice needs to look elsewhere to find funding for the courts, committee told

27 October 2015

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Our justice system is 'medieval' and the continuation of the criminal courts charge risked defendants' right to a fair trial, the Justice Select Committee has been told.

The parliamentary committee has been hearing evidence for its inquiry into the government's various and controversial courts and tribunals fees and charges.

In recent weeks it has been suggested that the justice secretary, Michael Gove, is in favour of scrapping the criminal courts charge, introduced under his predecessor's reign at the Ministry of Justice, which has been imposed on all guilty defendants since April.

Giving evidence to the committee, Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice drew comparisons between the courts charge and the recent race riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

'Court fines and charges were unfair,' she explained. 'Law and enforcement practices were focused on revenue rather than public safety. It is a slippery slope if courts are seen as a revenue stream.'

Phil Bowen, director at the Centre for Justice Innovation, also questioned the use of the charge as a source of revenue for the courts, saying: 'We don't ask for the accused to pay for their arrest or prison place.'

Meanwhile, Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said she would never oppose fines if they were appropriate and used when offenders could afford them.

'Understanding justice is important,' she said. 'It needs to be seen to be fair. There is a sense of resentment that [the criminal court charge] is not fair.'

Gibbs underlined the false economy of the criminal courts charge, saying: 'For every guilty plea there is a sentence that has to be paid by the state,' she continued. 'There is no impact assessment for how much the state will have to pay if more plead guilty.'

Phil Bowen remarked that 'clearly people are pleading guilty to avoid the cost' of the charge, before continuing, 'this feels like the start of a plea bargaining system.'

Making reference to the Lord Chief Justice, who recently suggested that criminal and civil court fees risked 'imperilling a core principle of Magna Carta', Bowen said there was a risk of a defendant's right to a fair trial being undermined under the charge regime.

'I don't believe you should be charged for using the courts whether you are guilty or not. How can you have a fair trial if you have a cost on it?' he added.

Highlighting the increase in the number of unrepresented defendants in the courts, Gibbs said: 'To pile on a financial complicating matter to people who are already totally at sea trying to represent themselves does threaten justice.'

Court reform

While referencing the recent example of homeless teenager Steffan Rowland Thomas, who was hit with a £150 charge at Swansea Magistrates Court for begging on the street, Crook described the justice system as 'medieval'.

'We have a medieval justice system and we are just piling stuff on top,' said Crook. 'We need fundamental reform of the lower courts.'

Commenting further on reform, Gibbs said the courts were not necessarily needed to deal with all offenders, citing Birmingham's 'Operation Turning Point' as an example.

Under the experimental scheme, offenders who have not been previously been convicted at court are cost effectively dealt with by police-led offender management rather than by prosecution.

'If the system embraced those kinds of initiatives, money could be saved,' said Gibbs. 'It doesn't always have to go to court.'

Crook alluded to evidence-led policy being used to consider reform of the justice system.

'We have a criminal justice system that is based on "I have a good idea" or "I feel strongly about this". It is not a good way to develop justice,' she opined.

Abolish or discretion?

The witnesses were unequivocal when asked by the committee what should happen to the criminal courts charge.

'It needs to go,' said Crook. 'What do you do for people who have already had this imposed on them? You have people with chaotic lives who cannot comply with it. They are going to go to prison and still have this hanging over their heads. We need to suspend it immediately and work out how to abolish it.'

'We need to abolish it and find the resources elsewhere,' agreed Gibbs. 'If you are going to keep it then you need some discretion.'

'There are other ways the courts can generate revenues by collecting monies already owed to it,' added Bowen. 'That is where the energy should be. It seems odd to create a new revenue source.'

Giving evidence later in the session, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, Richard Monkhouse, repeated his assertion that the charge was 'tokenistic' and called for greater discretion to be given to magistrates to apply the charge.

'Our objections are to the impacts and to proportionality, not just in terms of ability to pay but in terms of particular types of offence,' he said. 'The disproportionality over different cases. The same charge is used on cases that would take a minute as it would cases that would take a whole day.'

Monkhouse added that some magistrates have refused to accept guilty pleas over concerns the defendant may be innocent and that the frequency seemed to be increasing.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD

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