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.
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.