UK
29/09/2015 08:36 BST | Updated 29/09/2015 10:59 BST

Magistrate Nigel Allcoat's Attempt To Help Asylum Seeker Defendant Lands Him In Trouble

A magistrate has been praised for trying to help cover the cost of a destitute asylum seeker's court fee - something that led to him being suspended and placed under investigation.

Nigel Allcoat tried to cover part of a court payment of the man in the dock at Leicester Magistrates' Court, as the defendant was already before them for defaulting on a fine and, as an asylum seeker, received just £36 a week to pay for essentials and could not work.

"I was appalled that he should be in such a Catch 22 situation, as which ever way he went he would break the law," he told The Leicester Mercury.

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"As a magistrate, my main aim was to stop re-offending. Therefore, I took money from my pocket in court to pay some of the £180 in a pure humanitarian act to stop him being brought back to court as a fine defaulter again."

"Good on the magistrate," Zoe Gardner, from asylum seeker rights campaigners Asylum Aid told HuffPost UK. "I never cease to be amazed by the banal and bureaucratic cruelty of how we treat asylum seekers."

She said it was a "huge and tragic waste of people’s lives" for asylum seekers to be forbidden from working while living off half of what job seekers receive.

"Asylum seekers come from all different kinds of backgrounds, many are professionals and highly qualified but while they wait for a decision on their application they are not allowed to work," she said.

"Until August this year, asylum seeker families with young children received a small extra sum to cover the additional needs of growing kids, but the government has cut this, plunging desperate families further into poverty.

"The humiliation of being unable to participate in society and support your family through a fair day’s work is really difficult for many asylum seekers to take, and we mustn’t forget that we have a very slow and inefficient asylum process, that often leaves people waiting for a decision for many months or even years.

"Being forced into inactivity for that long, while also being cut off from community because of not having the funds to travel, for example to local faith or community centres, can lead to isolation, depression and becoming de-skilled."

The payment facing the man in Mr Allcoat's court is a controversial new charge introduced earlier this year, the criminal courts charge, that has prompted some magistrates to resign in protest over concerns it encourages guilty pleas because it can be higher if the defendant is convicted after pleading not guilty.

The charge is also not means-tested, meaning it is imposed regardless of the person's income.

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Nigel Allcoat said he wanted to show the asylum seeker 'compassion'

For his actions, Mr Allcoat was investigated by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee but resigned so he could speak freely about the case.

Mr Allcoat described how a friend who ran a burger stall had fed the asylum seeker, a man in his 20s, and once paid towards a previous fine.

He told The Guardian: "It was spontaneous, but I had £40 in my shirt pocket and thought: ‘What if I chipped in? If a burger stall owner can?’ And I thought it would just feed the computer.

He said he offered the money to "show him the character of this country is actually compassionate" and condemned the criminal courts charge, saying: "I hope this small act makes some contribution towards it coming back to haunt those who passed it."

The charge was introduced in April this year and dozens of magistrates have resigned since then in protest.

Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, the independent charity representing magistrates in England and Wales, 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.

"The law is the law and we have a sworn duty to apply it, so we’ve made our views known to the lord chancellor and will continue to do so.

“A review is needed with a view to granting judges and magistrates discretion in applying the charge because we know the majority of offenders will never be able to pay, and worse, that it may influence their pleas.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.

“The legislation and guidelines to magistrates and judges make it crystal clear that the charge is separate to the sentence and should not be considered as a mitigating factor.

“Magistrates and judges are aware that they can order offenders to pay in affordable instalments linked to their ability to pay. They do not have to order prompt payment in full.”