“It feels absolutely rotten”: a new legal fee forces courts to punish the poor and vulnerable

A magistrate reveals the devastating effect the government’s new criminal courts charge is having on people’s lives, and how it warps justice.

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This month, a woman who stole a 75p packet of Mars bars was fined £328. She hadn’t eaten in days, had no money for food due to her benefits being withheld, and was so desperate that she stole the cheapest food item in the shop.

If it hadn’t been for a generous online observer, who campaigned to fund the fine, she would eventually have been hauled in front of the court again and potentially faced a prison sentence for failing to produce the money.

Her story caused outrage at the lack of compassion and common sense that the court’s decision revealed. But the most sinister part of this news is that such ridiculous stories are cropping up in courts all over the country, due to a new legal fee the government included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, which passed in February.

Other examples include a homeless man charged £900 for shoplifting, multiple cases of people charged £150 for begging, and one man hit with £300 worth of costs for stealing three bottles of baby milk (see below).

The criminal courts charge is a fee adult offenders have to pay towards the cost of administering a criminal court case if they are convicted of, or plead guilty for, a crime. A blanket fee that cannot be changed according to the severity of the offence, the criminal courts charge is not means-tested, and cannot be waived.

It’s not up to the judge or magistrates’ discretion whether or not to apply the charge, and the court cannot take the charge into account when it decides on a sentence.

The minimum £150 charge comes on top of fines, prosecution costs, victim surcharges, and compensation costs that already hit those who are convicted. The woman who stole a Mars bar had to pay an £150 criminal courts charge.

Here is a rundown of the charges, from the Sentencing Council website:

The charge came into effect for offences committed on or after 13 April, and, due to the five or six months’ lag time for cases going through the Crown Prosecution Service to the courts, the cycle of these trials has recently begun, with magistrates only just beginning to realise what the charge means for justice – particularly in relation to vulnerable people who end up in court.

Thirty magistrates across the country have already resigned in protest against the charge. An insider at the Magistrates Association – which is pushing the government to let magistrates use their discretion regarding the new charge – reveals that the number of magistrates resigning may be higher than 30, and is likely to increase.

Bob Hutchinson, who resigned from the Fylde Coast magistrates’ bench after 11 years, has commented: “People are expected to pay off their fines over a 12- to 18-month period, but 85 per cent of people [who come before us] are on benefits and can only afford £5 a week.”

A North Tyneside magistrate, George Lyons, who has resigned after 15 years, wrote to Magistrate magazine: “This is a terrible piece of legislation introduced through the back door . . . Justice is only going to be for those who can afford it.”

Recently, a judge at Exeter Crown Court expressed frustration with the new charge, when a homeless shoplifter was fined £900. He told the court: “I must impose the criminal courts charge in this case . . . He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”

“It’s really frustrating,” one magistrate tells me. He is speaking to me anonymously – magistrates are not allowed to speak out about government policy so as not to compromise their impartiality.

“Instead of listening to the experience and knowledge of people who actually work within the system, a lot of these ministers, who have probably never even been into a court, were adamant that they were going to push it through nonetheless,” he says.

“Magistrates become magistrates because they want to apply common sense and fairness to a system that can sometimes seem really unfair,” he adds. “Discretion’s a really big part of this . . . With the criminal courts charge, there’s no discretion whatsoever.

“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,” he reveals. “There are a lot of people not even claiming benefits, not working, living on the streets – that’s where the discretion should come in.”

My source believes the government’s aim with the charge is to “substitute a value-for-money justice system with a cheap justice system”: “All it boils down to is that the government wants to use the courts as a way of swelling their coffers," he says. "The quality of justice is being compromised by that . . . But also it's a really politically clever move, because what the government's done is impose something that's pretty much irreversible, because no future government is going to come to power and say, ‘we want to make it cheaper for criminals’.”

He tells me he and his colleagues feel “awful, absolutely rotten” when having to charge £150 to desperate people who come before the court: “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.”

There is also a fear among magistrates that the charge gives poverty-stricken defendants an incentive to plead guilty, simply to avoid paying a charge higher than £150. My source warns: “People who are innocent are going to be looking at it and thinking it's going to be a lot cheaper to plead guilty – and that's not how the justice system should work.”

The Ministry of Justice rejects the idea of an incentive to plead guilty, claiming that, as the charge will only be imposed on convicted offenders, those found innocent will not pay the charge, therefore “this will mitigate against any risk of adverse incentives”.

An MoJ spokesperson defends the criminal courts charge: "It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them. The introduction of this charge makes it possible to recover some of the costs of the criminal courts from these offenders, therefore reducing the burden on taxpayers."

But the Magistrates Association, which represents about 80 per cent of the magistrates in England and Wales, is calling for the government to review the new policy. Its chairman, Richard Monkhouse, says: “Experienced magistrates resigning from the bench citing the charge as a key factor is a great cause of concern. Our members are telling us that they’re observing an influence on pleas, suggesting defendants may be pleading guilty just to avoid an even stiffer bill at the end of a trial.

“They are concerned at its mandatory nature given that sentencing should reflect an offender’s ability to pay. An urgent six month review is needed, rather than the statutory three years, so that the Lord Chancellor can grant magistrates the power decide how the charge is administered in individual cases. We need to let magistrates use their discretion.”

The magistrate I speak to sees the charge as part of a broader attack by the government on the justice system. "This criminal court charge, coupled with the cuts to legal aid, coupled with the court closures, they're just trying to transform it into something else, which is completely driven by ideology. The horrific things you see [due to the criminal courts charge] just really serves to highlight the impact that this is actually having on people's lives . . . It's a completely sordid state of affairs."

He concludes: “It’s a really, really nasty piece of legislation that takes no account whatsoever of the needs of vulnerable individuals.”

The criminal courts charge: costing courts their common sense

12 May A 32-year-old homeless woman was convicted of begging in Trinity Square, Nottingham. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, and a £15 victim surcharge.

11 June A 37-year-old woman who stole shampoo worth £2.39 from a shop in Banbury, Oxfordshire, was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £35 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.

18 June A 29-year-old homeless man in Torbay is charged a £900 criminal courts charge for shoplifting.

22 June A 30-year-old homeless woman was convicted in her absence of begging in a car park in Coventry, West Midlands. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £30 fine and a £20 victim surcharge.

22 June A 38-year-old homeless man admitted to persistently begging in Oxford, Oxfordshire, and breached an Asbo prohibiting him from sitting within ten metres of a cash machine. He was jailed for 30 days and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge.

29 June A 31-year-old woman from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, admitted stealing shower gel worth £2.39 from a pharmacy. She was jailed for 14 days and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £20 victim surcharge and £2.39 in compensation.

18 July A 34-year-old man was handed a six-week community order with curfew and was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £60 victim surcharge for stealing three bottles of baby milk from Sainsbury’s.

22 July A football fan in Mansfield town centre, who denied threatening opposing supporters in a town centre clash, changed his plea after being told he could be facing court costs of more than £600.

5 August A 26-year-old homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge.

14 August A 32-year-old woman was fined £328 for stealing a pack of Mars bars, £150 of which was the criminal courts charge. Her fine was crowdfunded by online campaigners outraged at the court’s decision.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.