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The Mandatory Criminal Court Charge

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Since April, the Criminal Courts have been told to levy additional charges on convicted offenders for the costs of their court proceedings, with anything from £150 to £1200 being charged. This is in addition to other financial burdens the defendant might have; fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges, etc.  Importantly, how much someone is asked to pay is not calculated on how much they can afford, but on the expenses, they have accrued. The charge is mandatory and the courts have no choice but to impose it.

If this sounds unfair, that’s because it is. It has resulted in people being charged over £100 for stealing items worth less than £10, re-offending out of necessity as they have even less money to support themselves, and, as some suspect, the strong arming of potentially vulnerable defendants into pleading guilty. In short, for many this amounted to one thing: the perversion of justice.  

Since the charges inception, we have seen more than 100 Magistrates resign, numerous committee meetings held and a general uproar from both politicians and the legal profession alike. This is not to forget defendants suffering too. So it was with some relief that in early December of this year Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that the Criminal Court Charge would be scrapped come 24th December 2015.

Gove has cut a more refined figure than his predecessor Chris Grayling, and whilst the mandate that he has been given remains the same (save money, cut costs), it appears that he is at least more sensitive the astounding injustice that these charges represented. However, as I’ve said, his mandate does remain the same, and unfortunately in the current political climate and with one eye on the current attacks on Legal Aid there are two worrying questions that need answering.

What next? Or perhaps rather, what instead? A cynical view of Gove’s actions would suggest that one of the more politically convincing arguments for getting rid of the Criminal Court charges was how much the government would have to spend in order to retrieve the money from those that couldn’t pay it. (Some estimates have put it near £700 million – an overestimation perhaps but still an indication of the amount of money involved). All roads always seem to point to the same direction: the government is cutting funding and looking to recoup costs. It would take a more optimistic mind than mine to suggest that the fiscal hole that the charges will leave will not be plugged soon enough. Given Gove’s enthusiasm for prison reform and court restructuring the hole might already be beginning to be filled. 

What for those people left behind? What happens to those already paying the criminal court charge, those who feel they have been financially harassed into pleading guilty and, in the case of one particular offender, having had to go without food for days after stealing a 75p mars bar. It may be that this question is never addressed politically, but rather left to Court to decide if and when a defendant is brought back to court for non payment.  Time will tell.

Whether or not these issues are adequately resolved remains to be seen, but, at least for the time being, we can afford ourselves a collective sigh of relief that the charges will be gone soon, if only to flinch in horror that they were ever implemented in the first place.