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20 November 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 10:29am

MPs call for the “grossly disproportionate” criminal courts charge to be scrapped

Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has raised “grave misgivings” about the new blanket court fee’s benefits.

By Anoosh Chakelian

A new blanket court fee was slipped into legislation by the last government in April, just before the election. It is called the criminal courts charge, and is applied without discretion or means-testing to all those convicted of a crime. It’s £150 if you plead guilty, and can reach £1,200 if you don’t.

The Justice Select Committee has scrutinised this new charge and expressed “grave misgivings” about its benefits, in a report out this week. Notoriously, the charge resulted in a starving woman who shoplifted a 75p packet of Mars Bars being fined £328.75 in August.

The Committee’s MPs are calling on Ministry of Justice ministers to scrap the charge, which it concludes is often a “grossly disproportionate” financial penalty in light of the crime committed and the defendant’s means:

“In particular we express concern about: the levels of the charge being grossly disproportionate to the means of many offenders and the gravity of the offences in relation to which it has been imposed; the lack of discretion enjoyed by sentencers on whether to impose the charge and if so at what level; the capacity of the charge to raise the revenue projected by the Government and the effect of levels of non-payment on respect for the legal process; the creation of perverse incentives affecting defendant and sentencer behaviour; and the detrimental impact on victims and the Crown Prosecution Service from sentencers reducing awards of compensation and prosecution costs . . .

“Our principal recommendation, in light of the evidence we have received and the grave misgivings about the operation of the charge which that evidence has prompted, is that legislation to repeal the charge should be brought forward by the Government.”

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I investigated the effects of the charge on poor and vulnerable people earlier this year. A magistrate frustrated and feeling “absolutely rotten” about imposing the charge on those who couldn’t afford it spoke to me anonymously about his experience:

“It’s not means-tested, so we can’t take into account the circumstances of an individual defendant. Probably 90 per cent of the times that I sit in court, at least one – possible more – will be people who find themselves homeless, or living in shelters, with absolutely no income whatsoever. There are a lot of people not even claiming benefits, not working, living on the streets – that’s where the discretion should come in . . .

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“Someone who’s stealing to survive, who’s not going out and stealing things to sell, someone who’s genuinely stealing because they’re hungry, and they’ve not got any food in the cupboards – that’s a completely different situation . . . . It [the charge] doesn’t recognise each individual’s case, and that each individual case should be judged by its own merit, and it completely removes from the hands of members of the judiciary the ability to ensure that justice is fair.

“All it boils down to is that the government wants to use the courts as a way of swelling their coffers.”

Read the full piece here.