A Hackney woman charged with theft has said this week that she would rather change her plea from not guilty to guilty than risk paying a £1000 criminal courts charge.
The case is being cited by opponents of the controversial new charge, brought in this year, which requires magistrates and judges to impose a charge of up to £1,200 on any convicted adult, whatever a defendant’s circumstances might be. It is paid on top of fines, compensation orders and legal charges, but has been deemed “an affront to fairness” by critics such as Hackney Community Law Centre.
Moss Law, solicitors for the unnamed woman said: “Despite initially pleading not guilty, the defendant has this week asked to plead guilty because of the criminal courts charge. She is in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance because of her mental health condition. At this rate it would take her just under four years to repay the criminal courts charge alone. If she were to fall behind in repayments, she could ultimately be arrested.”
Earlier this week, a report from the House of Commons revealed “grave misgivings” about the criminal courts charge, calling for legislation to abolish it.
Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said: “The evidence we have received has prompted grave misgivings about the operation of the charge, and whether, as currently framed, it is compatible with the principles of justice.”
Neill said the charge creates “perverse incentives for defendants to plead guilty” but it has been defended as a way of ensuring the taxpayer is not the first port of call for supporting the way in which our courts operate.
Hackney based solicitor Laura O’Brien said: “People with little money are more likely to plead guilty because of the criminal courts charge because the financial impact of having to pay the charge will be far greater for them. The criminal courts charge has become a financial incentive to plead guilty. This is contrary to all the principles that form the foundation of our justice system. Justice should not be bought and sold, it should not be reserved for the wealthy.”
Over 50 magistrates have resigned since April, including one over a case in Croydon last year, which saw a “penniless” asylum seeker forced to pay £180.
One magistrate who resigned, Marie Lewis said: “Criminal court charges disproportionately punish the poorest in the community. These charges undermine the right to a fair trial, putting pressure on people to plead guilty for fear of the costs.”
A spokesperson for Hackney Community Law Centre said: “The criminal courts charge is an affront to fairness. It encourages people who are not guilty to plead guilty because they fear that if they lose their case they will have to pay a far higher charge than if they pled guilty in the first place.
“The criminal courts charge also gives magistrates and judges no discretion – they must impose the charge on unemployed and low-income people who they know cannot pay. Many of the people will never be able to pay it back. The criminal courts charge is therefore a useless charge as well as an unfair one.”
The Howard League for Penal Reform has released a list of case studies in support of the abolition, which includes the case of a 26-year-old homeless man who was ordered to pay £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge, for stealing a can of Red Bull.
“The dozens of cases we have compiled are a snapshot of a failing criminal justice system,” said Frances Cooke, chief executive of the Howard League. “The Ministry of Justice should take the sensible decision and suspend this policy immediately, pending legislation to end it altogether.”
Justice Secretary Michael Gove told MPs he would review the criminal courts charge, as he acknowledged “widespread concern” about its operation.
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