Court fees and the resignation of magistrate Nigel Allcoat
This week Mr. Allcoat, a magistrate of 15 years’ experience has resigned after being suspended by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The reason for his suspension was he took money from his own pocket to pay some of the court costs he was required to impose. These costs are now mandatory and have been since April this year.
Think about that, the magistrate thought the penalty he imposed was so disproportionate that he paid some of it himself. In the case in question, the young man owed the court £180 in court charges. Mr. Allcoat contributed £40.
You might wonder, has the world gone mad? In what jurisdiction does the judge pay your court charge? Well, the one you live in. The Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Criminal Courts Charge) Regulations 2015 imposed new court costs on the 15th April this year. It is the magistrates’ job to apply them.
Mr. Allcoat did his job, he imposed the financial penalty. He then put his hand in his own pocket to contribute towards it. He does not really have much discretion on whether to impose the costs order. Having given it a minute’s thought, he took some money from his wallet. His fellow magistrate had left her purse elsewhere, or would have added to the contribution. When Mr. Allcoat’s act became public, he was suspended.
I deal with criminal cases every day in my job as a solicitor. I have to advise defendants on a whole list of issues when they enter their plea to an accusation. Added to that list is now the fact that if they plead not guilty the cost implications are really quite serious. The costs are up to £1,000 in the Magistrates’ Court and £1,200 in the Crown Court. That court cost is on top of all the costs of the prosecution, any fine and/ or the punishments the court might impose as the actual sentence. There is no discount for those who are less affluent.
There is little doubt that defendants (remember, not those yet convicted of any crime) feel real financial pressure to plead guilty. If you are accused of an offence that can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court, a guilty plea results in a £150 costs order.
If you fight the case, and lose, you owe a cool £520. Most people don’t have that amount of money readily available to them. If it happened to me I would have to ring a member of my family to help pay that fee if I wanted to pay it on the day it was imposed. Most of my clients will think very hard about whether to embark on litigation that results in costs they probably can’t pay. I think this might tip some people into a guilty plea.
Just this week in court, I dealt with a confused pensioner who was convicted after his trial. He was accused of assault. The magistrates’ found he had genuinely believed he was being attacked, but he had gone too far when defending himself. In short, he was sat alone at a bus stop talking and swearing to himself. A young man (probably acting as a good citizen) approached the pensioner and asked if he was “ok” as he was talking to himself. The pensioner believed (perhaps wrongly) that he was under attack. He punched the young man, several times.
The court was clearly sympathetic and indicated as much. It felt he did believe he was being attacked, albeit wrongly. He had gone too far though, he actually hurt the younger man as he caught him by surprise with the ferocity of the attack. The magistrates’ dealt with him very fairly when considering sentence, imposing a modest fine on an elderly pensioner who in its view was confused but had gone too far.
Then the magistrates’ got to the dreaded charge. They imposed the charge in full (£520), or in the alternative one day in prison. The pensioner had been at court all day. They deemed the day at court as one day’s imprisonment, which was deemed to have been served while at court. However, the pensioner had not so much as stepped into a cell. The end result, no court charge to pay. You have to admire their imagination. I suppose it was cheaper than the magistrates’ following Mr. Allcoat’s example and paying it themselves.
This is now common practice. Magistrates’ are doing everything they can to get around what is seen as a fundamentally unfair cost. The only sentence they can impose to entirely avoid it is an absolute discharge. This used to be a rarely used sentence. I understand that the imposition of absolute discharges has rocketed since the 15th April this year. I wonder why In the same time period, it is reported that around 50 magistrates’ have resigned because of these court charges.
The criminal courts see the great and the good, along with the poor and the disadvantaged. Those of us who work in the criminal justice system simply want the courts to have the ability to exercise discretion on what costs to impose and when to impose them. Simply imposing one figure for individuals in different circumstances can’t work. It needs to change.