In April this year, the Government introduced an additional financial penalty on convicted criminals appearing in court in England and Wales. This ‘criminal court charge’ ranged from £150 in the magistrates court to £1200 in the Crown Court. The charge was to be paid on top of fines, compensation orders, prosecution costs and victim surcharges and was payable irrespective of a person’s means.
Ahead of its introduction, the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the charge would ensure those who commit crime ‘pay their way’.
But just eight months later, the current Justice Secretary Michael Gove said ‘while the intention behind the policy was honourable, in reality that intent had fallen short’ and confirmed that the criminal court charge would be scrapped from 24 December 2015.
So what went wrong?
Reports from those inside the criminal justice system suggest a marked increase in innocent people considering entering a guilty plea to avoid the charge increasing after trial. For example, a ‘first time’ guilty plea in the magistrates court to a ‘summary only’ criminal offence (an offence that can only be heard in the magistrates court), would incur a criminal court charge of £150. Should that trial result in a conviction, the charge would increase to £520. Given the sums involved, some people were not willing to take the risk.
The Crown Prosecution Service and victims of crime were also affected. Prosecutions costs were not being awarded promptly as the courts were compelled to order the compulsory charge first. Furthermore the victims of crime were not being awarded their compensation orders, for the same reason.
Nigel Allcoat, a senior magistrate of 15 years, resigned from his position after he was suspended for paying a destitute asylum seeker’s court fine. He later revealed that he had simply used the £40 in his shirt pocket to help the man, who had defaulted on his fine.
Mr Allcoat is not alone in taking such action. Sources suggest that more than 50 magistrates have resigned as a result of the charge being introduced. The Magistrates Association say the decision to scrap the criminal court charge is “tremendously welcome”.
Some will be concerned that the charge has directly contributed to miscarriages of justice in the criminal courts. Quite how many cases have been affected in this way is, sadly, unclear.