As Members of Parliament return to their constituencies for the festive season, the government used the final days in Westminster to bury bad news. The long-awaited statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that the Criminal Courts Charge, scrapped earlier this month, raised a pitiful amount of revenue in its short-lived existence.
Our focus must now turn to the damage caused to those subject to the charge and to the Ministers who must learn from this failure before embarking upon further reform to our Justice system.
Back in April, when this charge was first introduced, Christopher Grayling’s justification was to ensure that criminals “pay their way”. Ministers told those on Labour benches that change to the court fees system would recoup millions of pounds per year and would lead to “no serious risk” to legal services and access to justice. In both of these assessments, the government has been proven utterly incorrect.
Since its maligned beginnings, the criminal courts charge has seen £27.7 million imposed upon guilty defendants and only £1.8 million collected. A return of around £1 in every £15 – just six and a half percent. Given the cost of administering this scheme has run to £530,000 and counting, this scheme has failed to raise any meaningful revenue.
The Quarterly Review also highlights the receipts from fines pre-dating the criminal courts charge. Once administered, not one of the payments imposed by the Courts and Tribunal return much more than half of receipts even six months after they are imposed. Even eighteen months after imposition the Ministry of Justice is still faced with enormous shortfalls in projected revenue. There are clearly flaws in the way our justice system collects payments from those who are guilty, but the general reasons for this are painfully obvious.
In my Westminster Hall debate in November, I spoke about individuals prosecuted for stealing 75p sweets, who subsequently faced extortionate fines due to the mandatory fee. This was not to absolve defendants of their potential guilt, but to warn the government that the charge would have dire consequences for desperately poor individuals.
In their Select Committee appearance, the Criminal Justice Alliance warned that in some Magistrates’ courts, around eight in 10 people are destitute or dependent on state support. The charge was always going to be unfeasible as those subjected to it simply could not afford to pay it back.
Faced with such crippling uncertainty, many were forced to borrow money at high interest from payday lenders to pay the charge. It would therefore be a mistake to think the scrapping of the charge and today’s figures somehow provide any respite. Though individual judgments can’t be revisited, the government must waive the remaining fees that have resulted from this historic mistake.
The resignations and condemnations from legal professionals throughout this sorry episode will also have lasting consequences. As the criminal courts charge was lower for pleading guilty before a trial, it gave potentially innocent people a perverse incentive to do so. Magistrates have gone on record noting how the charge affected their sentencing behaviour, as well as for those pleading. Though the financial losses of this policy are now a matter of fact, the government should be held to account for this blatant affront to a fair trial. A mechanism should be put in place to review cases for people who feel they were unduly influenced by this charge.
Michael Gove tries to spin himself as a “reformer”, taking on “the Blob”. We should not forget that it was during his tenure as Chief Whip that he corralled colleagues into voting for these measures. He is as responsible for this failed scheme as his hapless predecessor.
The challenge he faces in reforming our medieval criminal justice system is undoubtedly momentous, but he must not turn our justice system into one which true justice is only served to the wealthy few.
It is easy to confine this latest fiasco to spreadsheets in an effort to disguise its true effects, but for many, the criminal courts charge has damaged faith in the legal system and has led to some devastating individual outcomes. The government was repeatedly warned of this, but they did not listen. The mess of the criminal courts charge now needs clearing up, but the lessons from it must carry in the years that lie ahead.
Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn.