Criminal Courts charges apply to all adult defendants who are convicted in either the magistrates’ or the Crown Court for offences which have been committed on or after 13th April 2015. This applies to all cases except those in which an absolute discharge, a hospital or a guardianship order is imposed. It applies in addition to any other financial penalty which is imposed as part of the sentence such as a fine, compensation or a prosecution costs order. It is mandatory and not subject to means testing and must be imposed in addition to a victim surcharge.
50 magistrates are reported to have resigned in protest on the basis that the charge creates an unfair pressure on the defendant to plead guilty. It has also been criticised by the Magistrates Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Law Society. Professor Mike Hough, Associate Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck University of London, has said that the charges do not guarantee a right to a fair trial.
The level of charges have also been criticised for being arbitrary. A guilty plea to a summary only offence is £150 while a guilty plea to an either way offence is £180, although both require court time and representation. The charge for a trial under the single justice procedure is also £150, although no court time will be used and the trial on the papers will very often be conducted by a magistrate who is not paid for their time. There is also concern about how the charges will be collected by HM CTS debt collection departments that are already overstretched.
Magistrates are reported to be resorting to imposing an absolute discharge in order to ensure that the charge is not imposed.
Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation said
“The emerging evidence of how the criminal courts charge is working in practice suggests that it’s undermining defendants’ perceptions of fairness in our courts”
If innocent people are pleading guilty to avoid paying a charge they cannot afford there are also Article 6 implications if a defendant can only have a fair and public hearing if they can afford it.
The MOJ fact sheet on the bill stated that the charge was not intended to be reviewed by the government for 3 years but on 21 July the Justice Committee announced an inquiry into the effects of the introduction and levels of courts and tribunals fees and charges. The Inquiry has invited responses to the following questions:
What have been the effects on defendants of the introduction of the criminal courts charge?
Has the criminal courts charge been set at a reasonable and proportionate level?
Is the imposition and collection of the charge practicable and, if not, how could that be rectified?
The final date for submissions is tomorrow, 30th September. Submit your responses here.
To read more about the criminal courts charges, see our Practical Law practice note, Criminal courts charges.