Justice Committee calls on government to scrap criminal courts charge, in new report

The House of Commons Justice Committee has today released a report which calls for the repeal of the criminal courts charge, introduced in April 2015, just prior to the general election. The report considers the effects of the introduction of the charge on the criminal justice system. While the committee was conducting a wider inquiry into the range of courts and tribunals fees and charges, they decided to publish this separate report at an early date, after receiving a huge number of concerns on the charge in written evidence.

The report notes that in light of the evidence they have received and “the grave misgivings about the operation of the charge which that evidence has prompted”, the committee’s principal recommendation is that “legislation to repeal the charge should be brought forward by the Government.”

The charge refers to a mandatory payment of up to £1200 on all convicted defendants, irrespective of the financial circumstances of the defendant. The amount of the charge depends on the court in which the case is heard, and is higher for those who enter a plea of not guilty, than for those who plead guilty.

The report notes that in its impact assessment, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) gave as an objective of the charge:

“To recover some of the cost of the criminal courts from offenders to fund courts within the reformed Criminal Justice System, making offenders face the cost they impose on the taxpayer in England and Wales.” In this impact assessment, the government also estimated that implementation of the charge would cost £20 million per year.

The committee’s report reflects, “All witnesses except the Government expressed sceptism that the criminal courts charge would be successful in generating revenue for the criminal justice system. In fact, some had concerns that the charge could significantly add to expenditure.” The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) highlighted to the committee the government’s own estimate that it would need to spend an annual sum of £5 million “to meet the cost of imprisoning people for non-payment of the charge.” As worrying, these two organisations stated, was the fact that prisons are dangerously overcrowded, while in some magistrates’ courts, 85 per cent of people who appeared were on benefits, and no evidence exists as to whether recovery rates from such individuals “would be material.”

To illustrate the effect of the charge on individuals, the CJA argued that since the charges are mandatory and fixed they would necessarily affect poorer individuals most. The Howard League presented a range of examples to the committee, including the case of a 32-year old woman who admitted to stealing a four-pack of Mars Bars worth 75p. She said she stole the item because she “had not eaten in days” after her benefits were sanctioned. She was fined £73, ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs, a £20 victim surcharge and 75p compensation. The committee notes that this was just one of a number of cases brought to their attention.

The committee’s report said the lack of discretion for judges and magistrates on the level of the charge was creating “unacceptable consequences within the criminal justice system”. Bob Neill, Conservative MP who chairs the committee said to the Guardian: “In many cases it…[the charge]…is grossly disproportionate, it fetters judicial discretion, and creates perverse incentives – not only for defendants to plead guilty but for sentencers to reduce awards of compensation and prosecution costs. It appears unlikely to raise the revenue which the government predicts.”

To illustrate the perverse incentives and the effect on the justice system, the committee’s report cites further evidence from the Howard League, who gave the example of a 44 year-old man from Mansfield Woodhouse, “who was advised by his solicitor to plead not guilty, but changed his plea after hearing he faced having to pay more than £1,400 if he pleaded guilty and was then found guilty.”

The Justice Committee’s main concerns are:

  • The levels of the charge being grossly disproportionate to the means of many defendants and to the gravity of the offences in relation to which it has been imposed
  • The lack of discretion given to judges and magistrates on whether to impose the charge and if so at what level, creating unacceptable consequences within the criminal justice system
  • The creation of perverse incentives for both defendants and sentencers
    The detrimental impact on victims of crime and on the CPS from reduced awards of compensation and prosecution costs
  • The capacity of the charge to raise the revenue predicted by the Government, and the effect on respect for the legal process of levels of non-payment

The committee note that should the government be unwilling to bring forward legislation, “we recommend, as an irreducible minimum, that a double discretion should be accorded to sentencers, first, to decide whether to impose a criminal courts charge and then, secondly, to decide upon the amount of the charge in accordance with the circumstances of individual cases.”

The report represents an embarrassment for the government and a further criticism of the many policies they or the former government have applied to the justice system in the manner of a wrecking ball, with insufficient assessment given to available evidence and likely impact including value for money, the reports and views of those who work within the justice system, or importantly, upon access to justice.

With the spending review looming next week, and the government seeking savings of between 25 and 40 per cent from many government departments by 2019-20 in real terms, access to justice looks set to take a further assault. In their report, the Justice Committee concluded that they have “grave misgivings about whether the charge…[criminal courts charge]… as currently framed is compatible with the principles of justice”.

Even if the government agrees to repeal the charge, a wholesale change in policy is needed, the Speak up for Justice campaign, led by the TUC together with trade unions in the justice sector, calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system, including protection of access to local justice by ending court closures and cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service.

To view the report by the Justice Committee, please see: http://bit.ly/1NgrVau

Ruby Stockholm has blogged about the report at Left Foot Forward: http://bit.ly/1S8ROae

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