Days before the dissolution of Parliament, the government introduced the “criminal courts charge”. Starting on 13 April 2015, if you’re convicted of any offence you will be required to pay a charge to the court. The amount due will vary depending on the type of offence with which you’ve been charged, whether you contested the allegations or pleaded guilty, and whether your case was heard in the Magistrates’ or the Crown Court. The court will not be permitted to waive the charge or to vary the sum owed, but in certain circumstances it will be able to cancel (or “remit”) the debt after one or two years. The charge was introduced by secondary legislation, meaning that its details were not subject to Parliamentary debate.
A guilty plea in the Magistrates’ Court will now cost you a mere £150 or £180, but if you decide to fight the case and lose, it will cost you either £520 or £1000, depending on the nature of the offence in question. If you plead guilty in the Crown Court it will now cost you £900; if you elect to fight the case and lose, it will cost you a nice round £1,200. Those who receive a prison sentence will have to pay the charge after their release, and the ultimate sanction for failing to do so will be further imprisonment.
When defending the court charge, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, insisted that he was “on the side of people who work hard and want to get on”. Charging criminals for their use of the courts, he said, would ensure that they “pay their way”.
On Grayling’s account, then, the charge is intended to make criminals pay for the services they use so that society’s “hard-workers” don’t have to. But it’s far from obvious that the charges would achieve this aim even if they were implemented with the utmost efficiency. The reason for this is that the sums don’t add up, leaving it difficult to discern the rationale behind the figures the government has prescribed. Guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice states that the charge is intended to reflect “the costs reasonably attributable to a case of the [relevant] class” – so that, in theory, you are literally paying for your use of the court. But if that’s the case, it seems odd that being convicted after a two-hour trial in the Magistrates’ will cost you £520, whereas being convicted after a 10-week trial in the Old Bailey will only cost you an extra £680: that is, £1,200. It may be that the charge is only intended to secure a contribution towards the court’s costs, but in the absence of any logical correlation between the prescribed figures and the circumstances in which they apply, and with the Ministry providing no explanation as to how those figures have been calculated, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the true purpose of the charge is punitive rather than economic.
The biggest problems with the charge, though, stem from the fact that those who pass through the criminal courts are frequently of very limited means. As a result, the charge will invariably be imposed upon people who simply cannot pay. (To take one example: in 2013-14 there were 2,771 prosecutions for vagrancy in England and Wales. It is unclear how the government expects those who are prosecuted for begging to repay the purported costs of their proceedings.) This is likely to yield a number of undesirable results. First, in many cases the charge will simply go unpaid, eventually – perhaps – being cancelled by the court after one or two years. But because the court will be unable to cancel it any sooner, resources will be spent pursuing it when there’s no realistic prospect of repayment. Second, many of those who are able to pay will only be able to do so thanks to their benefits. This means that the state will spend money in the form of benefits and then spend more money paying for the collection of those benefits to satisfy its own court charge. The guidance issued by the Ministry explains that it is in the process of contracting out its debt collection services. Whoever wins that contract will effectively be paid to transfer money from one government department to another. Third, those who are deemed to have “willfully” failed to pay, will be sent to prison. This will not only cost money; it will also mean that the country’s under-staffed, over-populated prisons have even more inmates to accommodate. Fourth, and perhaps most worrying of all, the spectre of the potential debt may well persuade innocent defendants to plead guilty simply to save money. After all, it is clear that a guilty plea will save you – literally – hundreds of pounds. The charge therefore creates a financial incentive for you to plead guilty regardless of the truth of your position, and before the full details of the case against you have been disclosed. The practice of incentivizing guilty pleas will doubtless save the courts time, but it is hardly conducive to the administration of justice.
Of course, not everyone will be unable to pay. Those with mortgages, jobs, and families, those “who work hard and want to get on”, could find themselves on a payment plan stretching well into the future. They may only be in court because of a momentary and lapse of concentration or a fleeting loss of composure, but once they’ve pleaded guilty in order to limit their charge, and as they reflect on the fines, prosecution costs, compensation, victim surcharge, and legal fees that remain outstanding, they’re unlikely to conclude that Grayling was ever on their side.
Stephen Reynolds is a pupil barrister at Carmelite Chambers. Prior to entering law, he studied and taught philosophy.