On 13th April this year the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling brought in new court charges for those convicted at magistrates’ or crown courts. The new charges are payable on top of fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and prosecution costs already imposed on those who plead guilty or are convicted.
The criminal legal profession has been voicing its scepticism over the new punitive charges. The greatest concern is about the significant disparity between charges for a guilty plea and charges following conviction after trial. In the magistrates’ a court charge for a guilty plea starts at £150 compared to a fee of up to £1000 if convicted after trial. In the crown court these costs range from £900 for a guilty plea, up to £1,200 for a conviction after trial. This has led many practitioners to fear that the innocent may choose to plead guilty rather than run the risk of failing to win their case at trial.
Both the Law Society and the Magistrates Association have echoed these concerns stating that the new charges may encourage low-income defendants to plead guilty rather than risk the possibility of extra substantial costs. Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, called it “another cynical attempt to push for quick-fix guilty pleas”.
Last week a number of experienced magistrates began resigning in protest at the charges with some reports suggesting that as many as 20 magistrates have now left the bench. Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates Association, said: “Our members have expressed concerns about the charge from the outset and it shows the strength of feeling when experienced magistrates resign from the bench because of it.”
Critics also argue that the Ministry of Justice has overlooked one vital issue; the fact that convicted defendants, many of whom are on state benefits, may never even be able to pay the new court charges. The new fees are not means-tested and those deemed unable to pay immediately will still be made to do so via instalments. However, it is predicted that much of the new court fees will prove to be uncollectable and will this will only add to the growing debt burden owed to the courts.
At a time when the profession has already faced significant cuts to legal aid and professional fees, these new court charges only serve to extend resentment about the state of our justice system.