Criminal Court Charge

Since April this year anyone convicted of a crime, from motoring to murder, has had to pay a fixed tax, called the Criminal Court  Charge.  It is a non means tested tax on offending.  A low offence carries £150, more serious cases £180, up to £520, £900 or £1200 if you have a trial and lose or end up in a Crown Court.  The Ministry of Justice says offenders should pay for the cost of the system that convicts them.
A ‘polluter pays’ tax system is hardly controversial, but the Court Charge has proved problematic.  The law gives no discretion over the tax, irrespective of what the defendant has done or how much they can afford to pay.  So a penniless, homeless drunk in the cells will have to pay his £150, just like the millionaire driver who speeds.  The court must order the charge even where there is no prospect of it ever being paid, such as for a person serving life in prison, or where the defendant will be deported, or where they simply have no money.  The court must order the charge even if they would rather the defendant’s limited means went towards compensating the victim.
This nonsense is ignored by the Ministry of Justice who prefer the mantra of austerity.  Easy for Mr Gove and his minions, less easy for Magistrates and Judges who actually have to hand out this injustice day in day out.  More than a dozen Magistrates have already resigned in the face of it.  Recently a Leicestershire Magistrate faced action after trying to pay a Criminal Court charge himself on behalf of a defendant in the dock.  A string of judges, Magistrates, lawyers and academics have railed against the obvious injustices that are arising day in day out.  Innocent defendants are encouraged to plead guilty because the risk of losing is so unaffordable as to be impossible to countenance.  For example, the homeless man who takes some food from a bin but is accused of stealing it knows that if he is convicted he will have to pay a £900 court charge.  No if or buts.  So he cannot have a trial, he must plead guilty, in truth because he is too poor to ask the court to accept that he was desperate not dishonest.
The abandonment of the rule of law, of just, proportionate, fair sanction for breaking the rules, with the imposition of arbitrary and disproportionate sentences without judicial discretion is dangerous and unsettling.  The economic arguments may be compelling.  The criminal justice system is creaking, perhaps collapsing under the strain of unprotected budget cuts.  But it is a major worry that the government is unwilling to trust Magistrates and Judges to use their discretion about when or whether to impose the Court Charge.  Why not?  It can only be through a fear that they would exercise that discretion to avoid injustice, but in so doing the exchequer might miss out.
And this highlights a simple truth – the Minstry of Justice doesn’t care about justice any more.  It cares only about cutting short term costs and raising revenue. If that causes or facilitates injustice then so be it.  Think not that this is the lament of the guilty con who can no longer weedle his way out of his dues.  The  ready abandoning of the principles of justice has profound impact.  Take, for example, the Crown Prosecution Service, our state prosecutor that is in such a state of decline as to make the role of the victim a certain misery.  Rhetoric about victim rights masks a truth in which a just outcome is easily lost in a cost saving plea bargain, or a failed investigation, perhaps yet another botched prosecution that collapses in wave of shrugged shoulders from a demoralised civil service.  When proportionality in the criminal justice system becomes an inconvenience, what is really right or wrong, good or bad, serious or minor soon gets overlooked, because it makes no difference to the outcome.
Or no difference on paper.  But as those magistrates who are resigning, or he in Leicester who made a simple act of charity to pay the unjust charge, well know, there are real people in the criminal justice system.  Real people with real lives, whether defendants, victims, witnesses, their families or children.  To them, to us, if not to Mr Gove or his beurocrats, justice matters.
The Government should forthwith introduce judicial discretion to the Criminal Court Charge.  It will make zero difference to the monies actually recovered but might just give a hint that the present administration is prepared to care about the principles of justice that have meant so much to our rule of law for so long.  And it might even help keep our Magistrates on the bench.

Matthew Graham


Update 8/12/15:  Hooray.  In early December 2015 The Ministry of Justice announced what has widely been reported as the abolition of the Criminal Court Charge completely from the 24 December 2015.  The boring legal bit is that strictly speaking the Court Charge is not abandoned but reduced to zero in all cases pending a review.  Still, the U-turn is much to be welcomed, and continues a pattern of the current Minister reversing the policies of his predecessor.




Male Rape Victims

When Sue Mountstephens recently confirmed that funding for support of male rape victims would be protected she highlighted a much forgotten and largely hidden crime.  Male victims of rape and sexual assault suffer all the same terror, indignity and sheer horror as women, and they likewise suffer all the same stereotypes and prejudices as women.  Did they ask for it by behaving provocatively?  It was their fault they were drunk or using drugs, wasn’t it, that was their choice, right?  Maybe they ‘consented’ to be being raped, or are making it up because they are ashamed of their infidelity.

Male victims are perhaps even further behind, as support services are less well entrenched and societal attitudes shy away from confronting male rape and sexual assault.  Say it out loud. Anal rape.  Victims often fear judgement.

The criminal justice system should only provide a part of the solution.  Too often, our community turns to the police and the courts to solve the crime, to solve the problem.  In truth, such crimes are hard to investigate and hard to prosecute.  Using the criminal justice system will fail most victims and will often prove a miserable and underwhelming experience.  Male rape prosecutions remain rare, and whatever the rights and wrongs of our system, right now, victims seeking solace in the police and courts will often be disappointed.  Put simply, the small number of cases in which there is enough evidence to prosecute will rightly be prioritised, and the police and CPS are set up accordingly.  Increasingly, the authorities will prosecute even where there is in truth little hope of conviction, a political solution that fails victims miserably.

Other support services deserve better funding  and higher profile.  If as much resource were given to victims even when a court case couldn’t be made, or where the victim didn’t want one, the prospects of surviving would be plain better.  The authorities are willing to spend tens of thousands on a tenuous prosection, and in a world of finite budgets places like who are trying to give equal profile to male victims must battle for every penny of funding.

They deserve applause and support for the work they do with all victims, with gender rightly being irrelevant when discussing victim, offender or survivor.

Bath Court Threatened with Closure

Bath Court, the focal point of justice and the law in our City, may be about to close.  The Ministry of Justice, headed ominously by Michael Gove, is on the austerity warpath.  As a so called ‘unprotected’ department there must be savings and they must be big.  Enormous in fact.  What is the impoverished minister to do?

Selling off the court estate is very much the plan.  Over 30 courts are on the hitlist for closure within 6 months.  In truth, the government has been steadily selling off smaller, little used courts for some years now, typically part time or rural courts.  Locally, Frome Court was the most recent to go a few years ago, with its work being transferred to Yeovil.

This time, however, there are some proper courts on the list, and Bath combined Magistrates and County Court is one of them. Move it all to Bristol is the simple scheme.  Bristol has new Private Finance Initiative buildings that have the government locked into eye wateringly expensive long term contracts – so they cannot close, whatever the cost.

This all about money – sell the court for some sort term cash, combine some running costs and make a longer term saving.  But what will be the real cost?

Local Justice means the people of this city – residents, the business community, tourists – can access justice.  Whether that is having a county court so you can sue someone, or a victim of domestic violence can get an injunction, or an unhappy couple can get divorced.  Or it might be the Magistrates Court, to ensure that the local troublemaker gets his comeuppance for stealing your car. Maybe he’ll even be prevented from doing it again.  Local Justice means local Magistrates who know the city.  It means local police officers who know how the city works.  It means priorities that suit Bath and surrounds, not some national policy.  It means that a locally elected Police Commissioner can see through change here.  Local Justice is what works in Bath, not Bristol.

For the vulnerable and marginalised the situation is even worse.  Those who are homeless, illiterate or perhaps disabled find it even harder to access justice than most.  Creating barriers to justice saves money because it excludes citizens from sensibly participating.  That is injustice.

It is plain that when a court closes the prospects of it ever reopening are more or less zero, so if this resource is lost it will likely be gone forever.  The City of Bath has had a court for centuries and whilst the deliberations of a grand jury at the Bath Assizes may be a distant memory, the need for a local centre of justice in the city is both long standing and prescient.  With a growing population, a thriving business community, challenges with transport and development, Bath is as much in need of a city Court as it ever has been.  Whether your concern is about antisocial behaviour or evening rowdiness, or local children at risk being speedily supported into safety by the Local Authority, or commercial disputes being resolved expeditiously and efficiently, this is all the business or your local court.  Decisions are presided over by judges and magistrates who know the place.  More importantly, they care about the city and those who live and work here.

This is what will be lost if the court closes.  Losing local justice is the cost of closure.

Several of the concerned local community will meet this week with our new MP Ben Howlett.  It is his administration that is wielding the axe.    There is currently a consultation process ongoing.  It’s time to save our local Court and preserve local justice for the city.

Proceeds of Crime – Sold up the River

When canoeist John Darwin paddled off over the horizon in 2002 he dreamt of a life insurance scam to be made good in tropical Panama. When the new life of he and his wife collapsed in a media scrum that became a prosecution which ended with 6 years in jail they must have thought their crushing story had ended. But beyond grabbing the tabloid headlines the prosecution had also gone after the money. Crime doesn’t pay, is the mantra of the authorities, and the proceeds of crime are the state’s for the taking. And take they did, to the tune of over a million pounds.

Recently in Bristol Rita Lomas, a queen of the pyramid scheme scam, also faced the wrath of the financial recovery team at the Crown Prosecution Service. Yet her part in a £21 million scam resulted in an order that she pay only one pound.

But these schemers and scammers have something in common beyond their humiliating dishonesty. They are at the mercy of orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act that require the benefit value of the crime to be calculated, recorded and remembered. Forever. The fraudster will be ordered to hand over every penny they have (after selling their houses and cars, draining their bank accounts at home and abroad) but if there is a shortfall against the benefit the state is allowed to bide it’s time. If you can’t repay the whole value now, maybe you will be able at some later point in your life. So Ms Lomas must be penniless now (hence her one pound order) but if and when she comes into money later then they’ll be back onto her in no time. And that is what the canoeists were reminded of in early July 2015. Mr Darwin was back in court 7 years after his case finished, because he had become due a pension. Thank you very much said the CPS, we’ll have that as well.

The courts are starting to see now a steady stream of defendants coming back for applications that they hand over assets, often years after their crime and in respect of assets that everyone accepts have been wholly innocently and properly obtained. No matter, until you’ve repaid the benefit value of your crime, you still owe the state.

And the benefit value of crime can be a whole lot more than most people think. Benefit doesn’t mean how much you made from a crime. Or how much you might have made if you’d have got away with it. It doesn’t mean your share of the spoils either. The benefit value usually means the most the state can say the value of the crime adds up to. For example, if a waste disposal business operates without a licence, the value of the offending won’t be just the cost of the licence, but the combined value of each and every waste disposal undertaken without the licence.

Further, many crimes are so called ‘lifestyle offences’. That means that the courts assume you have a criminal lifestyle and that every penny you have and have had over recent years is the proceeds of crime, unless you can prove to the contrary. Proving to the contrary can be difficult and expensive, especially if you don’t have well kept accounts, you have been self employed or your tax affairs are other than straightforward. Proving the purpose of every single transaction on your bank accounts going back years is a daunting and expensive task. Anything you can’t prove will have to be paid back, now if you can afford it now, but otherwise at some point in the future.

Proceeds of Crime used to be mostly about drug dealers with apartments on the Costa del Sol. Now though, it is business and regulatory crime that is attracting the interests of police and regulators – often where the money is to be found. Individuals and directors are increasingly finding that added to the damage to their reputation and any sentence imposed are orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

As our canoeists have shown and our pyramid scammer is sure to be reminded, these are orders that will get you in the end. Paddling off to Panama won’t be enough to escape. Nor will being broke. No respite will be found in the passage of time either. Only paying for your crime or your criminal lifestyle will leave you in the clear, even if that takes you a lifetime.

Mowbray’s Crime Team

Welcome to the blog of the Mowbray’s Crime Team.  Based in Bath, Somerset, we are a team of experienced and committed defence lawyers, who care about justice, care about our clients and are used to winning.  This blog gives us a chance to share some thoughts on topics related to the Criminal Justice System.  Want to know more?  See or mail

Matthew Graham, Partner and Head of the Crime Team at Mowbrays