How the appearance of rationality can be completely divorced from the real world.
Since April, when a person is convicted in the Magistrates Court for a summary offence (minor offence, no jury, limited penalties on conviction) they have to pay a £520 “Criminal Courts Charge”. There is no provision for remitting this charge, even where no penalty is imposed, or the accused has no money. If the plea is Guilty, the charge is £150. The charges in the Crown Court, with a jury, are £900 for a guilty plea and £1200 on conviction.
As one defendant was led away, the judge asked the courtroom, “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?” Judges have to be tough, but also fair. It is wrong to embitter someone in this way. When creating cruel policies, have a care for those who must enforce them. Fines are charged according to the accused’s income, but courts are not allowed to take the Charge into account when setting the fine.
The Howard League for Penal Reform, now campaigning for a review of the charge, has a number of sad stories: A 41-year-old man who stole two tubs of ice cream worth £9.58 from a shop in Coventry, West Midlands, was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £15 victim surcharge. Worse, they show that someone not guilty of the offence charged may consider pleading guilty, or accepting a caution from a police officer, to avoid the higher charge.
The government does not recognise any of this. Here is a pdf “fact sheet” from the Ministry of Justice about the charge, written before the Bill was enacted. How they will recover costs from homeless people is not addressed. Reading it, one would almost think this a liberal measure: This Bill makes provision to enable fines officers to agree new payment terms with an offender post-default, giving offenders further opportunity to take responsibility for their debts and reducing the administrative burden of enforcement activity. Irrecoverable charges may be remitted, if the offender “has taken all reasonable steps to pay”.
Offenders may be imprisoned for failure to pay- my phrasing is more direct than the MoJ’s: If default in paying the Criminal Courts Charge by an offender is due to their wilful refusal or culpable neglect and all other enforcement steps have been exhausted, then the ultimate sanction of ordering them to serve a term of imprisonment can be used as a last resort. I searched the legislation but could not find the relevant provision- perhaps Parliament had this vestige of common sense- but the Howard League says it is still in place.
I read here that one policy objective is to “avoid causing hardship” (p1) and that the Government would be happy to spend £20m a year on attempts to collect the charge, plus £5m a year on imprisoning those who could not pay (p2). Words mean nothing here, including “Ministry of Justice“.
Aside from the practicalities, a person should not be punished disproportionately to the crime. Fairly detecting and prosecuting acts against the community benefits all, and should be paid for by the community. How can they not see this? How?