THE BLOG

The Criminal Courts Charge Is an Injustice to Every British Citizen

20/11/2015 14:07 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

This week I led my first Westminster Hall debate on the introduction of the Criminal Courts Charge in April and the effects on access to justice for British people. Earlier this month, I asked Justice Secretary Michael Gove how such an absurd policy had even been signed off in the first place. He said the policy was under review and insisted that it was no more than a cost-saving exercise.

Unfortunately, it is much more than that. Do we really want a justice system where those with money can afford to seek justice but those without wealth cannot?

The truth is that this new charge is far more than a simple transactional issue about who should pay for our courts system. The new charge forces guilty defendants to pay a portion of their court costs, with lower charges if they plead guilty before the trial. If that seems like a technicality, or even fair recompense for a crime, consider how judges and lawyers have responded. They speak of a reverberation that will impact how every British citizen negotiates with our criminal justice system - whether guilty or not.

Here's why. If you plead guilty early, without going through the 'hassle' of a criminal case, your Courts Charge will be lower. If you don't plead guilty, the charges quickly add up - and can end up more than three times the original amount for a typical summary offence in a magistrates' court.

The Government's own reports highlight the obvious problem, albeit with the well-studied understatement of bureaucracy. The Ministry of Justice's Impact Assessment on the charge was clear that it "could provide a small additional incentive to plead guilty."

The risks in fact go even further: innocent defendants in a state of vulnerability, uncertainty and fear, perhaps seeing police and lawyers first hand for the first time in their lives, may plead guilty because of this - especially those on low incomes or those who haven't been able to find criminal barristers to defend their cases due to Government cuts to legal aid. For those without the advice and support that used to be available, a thicket of legal terms and unfamiliar procedures can too quickly lead to panic and poor decision-making.

Swift justice is not always better justice - heavier penalties can result because the full context and any mitigating circumstances have not been reviewed properly. Campaigning organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform have written in detail on this phenomenon, and our legal profession is seeing it in person on a daily basis.

The Criminal Courts Charge affects how each and every one of us relates to the justice system in our country - even when we don't experience the misfortune of going to trial ourselves. Our criminal legal profession rightly sees their role as more than just convicting guilty defendants. Central to our justice system is the presumption that people are innocent before they are guilty, and the protection of those for whom there is not enough evidence to convict. When fifty magistrates have left their profession in protest at these charges, you know there is something profoundly unfair at the heart of this policy.

Still unsure? Then have a read of the report from the Justice Select Committee, comprised of MPs from across three parties. It has reviewed expert evidence at length and has explicitly recommended that "legislation to repeal the charge should be brought forward by the Government". "At an irreducible minimum", they say, "double discretion" should be provided to those who pass down sentences.

This affront to our legal system is plain for all to see. Michael Gove must make good on his promise and listen to the cries of judges, barristers, magistrates and - most importantly - the vulnerable. There may be a need to save costs, but this is a price too high to pay.