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4 December 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 12:33pm

What does scrapping the courts charge reveal about Michael Gove as Justice Secretary?

The controversial criminal courts charge, which punishes the poor, is being reversed.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Justice Secretary Michael Gove has scrapped the criminal courts charge. The measure, which hits defendants with a disproportionate blanket fee that cannot be means-tested and is not subject to the court’s discretion, has attracted condemnation from the justice sector since being passed in April.

You may know it as the controversial charge that meant a starving woman who had been subjected to a sanction on her benefits had to pay a £328 fine for shoplifting a 75p packet of Mars bars.

Gove, who announced this week that the charge will be scrapped, said:

“The basic principle behind the policy – that those who have broken the law should bear some of the costs of running the criminal courts – is right. However, as the Justice Select Committee set out in its recent report, there have been concerns raised about how this has worked in practice.

 “. . . It has become clear that while the intention behind the policy was honourable, in reality that intent has fallen short. Whenever I have had the opportunity to talk to magistrates over the last six months, the criminal courts charge has been raised and in almost every case it has been criticised  I would like to give the judiciary – including, of course, the magistracy – greater discretion in setting financial orders.”

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The mandatory charge, which judges and magistrates could not waive or reduce, caused over 100 magistrates across the country to resign in protest. The main problems they highlighted with the charge was that it disproportionately hits poor and vulnerable people, and that it provides a false incentive to plead guilty, because the charge can reach as high as £1,200 for a not guilty plea.

The criminal courts charge quietly slipped into legislation as part of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act in February, passed by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The charge came into effect for offences committed on or after 13 April, so Gove’s U-turn has been very rapid.

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How do magistrates feel about this, and what does this tell us about the minister who so angered teachers with his reforms when running the Department for Education?

A magistrate who says he came “very close” to resigning over the criminal courts charge speaks to me anonymously:

“It’s a great day. I certainly know that a lot of my colleagues will be really relieved. I was a bit surprised really about the fact that Michael Gove – who’s built up a reputation of himself, especially in the teaching industry – actually has been a little bit more receptive.

“The courts charge was essentially based on ideology, whereas in practice it just didn’t work; the figures didn’t seem to stack up, and what they were doing didn’t seem to work. I’m glad that Michael Gove’s listened to what people have been saying.

“I was mortified when I found out that Michael Gove was going to be Justice Secretary. He’s a reformist. And purely based on the things that he did in the education system, it was pretty mortifying initially. But the fact that he has actually sat up and listened to the concerns of people who work in the sector, people who spend their time knowing the impacts of these policies – it’s quite promising. I’m not expecting great things, but at least he’s a little bit more receptive than Chris Grayling was.”

Gove – whose “revolution” as Education Secretary roundly angered the education establishment, which he nicknamed “The Blob” – was expected at first to shake up and anger the justice sector.

However, unlike with the teachers, it appears he has been listening to magistrates and judges. Some in the industry are surprised that he scrapped the charge altogether, and didn’t simply water it down to allow the courts discretion.

This decision, along with the retraction of the Saudi prison deal, and talk of reducing the prison population, have put him in the law and justice system’s good books for now. Perhaps his reputation as a relentless reformer will work in his favour – if what he reforms are the assaults on the legal and justice system made by those in his own party.