Poverty-stricken people are being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit out of fear they will face crippling costs imposed by new financial penalties, leading lawyers, magistrates and campaigners have warned.
A new levy was introduced to make criminals pay for the upkeep of the courts. Because the charge can be up to 10 times higher if someone is found guilty after pleading innocence, critics say it is undermining the justice system by encouraging impoverished defendants to plead guilty even if they have done nothing wrong. The charge is not means-tested or adjusted according to the seriousness of the crime. In the magistrates’ court it is fixed at £150 if someone pleads guilty, but it can rise to £1,000 if they are found guilty. Campaigners also say it has created an extra hardship for those whose crimes are motivated by poverty – and makes the punishment for small crimes disproportionate.
Many of those affected are homeless or unemployed, with no hope of paying. Cuts to legal aid mean more people are representing themselves, making them less confident of successfully proving their innocence – and more likely to plead guilty in order to avoid exorbitant costs. The charge is so immovable that even if you go to prison for failure to pay it is not wiped out. The debt collection will be outsourced to private firms.
At least 30 magistrates – many of them among the most experienced – have already stepped down from the bench over the changes and many more are predicted to resign as further cases come through. Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, the independent charity representing the majority of magistrates in England and Wales, said: “The chief concern of our members is the observation that pleas are being influenced by the charge. Defendants may be pleading guilty in order to avoid a larger financial penalty… We hope that the Lord Chancellor will grant the urgent review we’re calling for and grant magistrates discretion in applying the charge.” Mr Monkhouse added: “We are seeing experienced magistrates resigning from the bench, and we expect this figure to increase as the cycle of trials with the charge kicks in.”
Philip Keen resigned from the bench on 2 July after serving as a magistrate for 30 years in the Isle of Wight. He said: “I couldn’t justify sitting there and imposing that. Our discretion has been taken away and it goes against everything we’ve been taught about fining people within their means and ability to pay. The people we’re dealing with don’t have any money, that’s what [the Government] can’t understand... This charge needs to be knocked on the head quickly because it’s just unfair.”
Bob Hutchinson, who resigned as deputy bench chairman of Fylde Coast magistrates this summer after serving for 11 years, has been an outspoken critic of the new charge. “There’s a strong possibility that people will feel financial pressure to plead guilty when they’re not,” he said.
District Judge James Henderson expressed exasperation at the charge. Sentencing a homeless man for burglary at Wimbledon magistrates’ court, the judge told the court of his disappointment that he was unable to waive the charge because he had no discretion to do so.
A judge at Exeter Crown Court questioned the viability of the Criminal Courts Charge after imposing a mandatory £900 fee on a homeless shoplifter in June. As Stuart Barnes, 29, was led away for stealing £60 of cosmetics, Judge Alan Large asked: “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “There’s beginning to be evidence that people who are innocent and would like to say they’re innocent are worried that if they do it will be like Russian roulette. This is encouraging them to plead guilty because it carries less financial risk.” Ms Crook compared the charge to the poll tax. “Because it’s mandatory and because it’s a fixed amount it’s a bit like the poll tax. There’s no discretion, which makes it unfair on the people who haven’t got money – as well as those who could pay more. The fines system has always worked on the basis of whether people could pay.”