"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
In modern Britain, we can get a fairly accurate gauge by sitting in our courts. In the last few days of the outgoing government a new set of fees were introduced into legislation without debate. The way in which these fees were introduced and their likely effect are a damning indictment of the way modern Conservatives view society. They are the final proof, if any were needed, that in their eyes money trumps everything, even justice.
As the Law Society Gazette explains, the new criminal court fees were laid as a statutory instrument enabled by a clause of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act. They were introduced without proper consultation or debate. Defendants convicted by a magistrates' court of a summary offence will be charged a fee of £150 if they plead guilty, and a fee of £520 if they insist on a trial. If the offence is one that could be tried at either a magistrates' court or a Crown court, but is heard by a magistrate, the defendant who opts for trial will be charged £1,000. In Crown court, conviction on a guilty plea will be charged at £900, while those convicted at trial will have to pay £1,200.
I have spent time in the public galleries of a number of courts and have seen the diverse range of people who can appear in the dock. If the impoverished, indebted or infirm are faced with the prospect of a £150 fee versus a potential £1,200 fee, will they be incentivised to plead guilty to a charge that they might otherwise have fought? One of the cornerstones of the justice system is the presumption of innocence. The fee system the Conservatives have introduced in such an underhand way, without proper parliamentary debate, can only corrupt the presumption of innocence.
Judges and magistrates already have the power to impose fines once people have been convicted of an offence. Society has more than enough methods to punish offenders. The idea that individuals should bear the costs of their own trial is abhorrent. Society benefits from the administration of justice and it is only by society carrying the cost that we can be certain that the course of justice is not perverted. The government has introduced a mechanism that will give prosecutors additional leverage to try to encourage a guilty plea. The scales held by Lady Justice, who looms large over the Old Bailey, should be replaced by a cash register.
Almost as troubling as the effect the fees will have on the criminal justice system is what they reveal about modern Conservative attitudes to society. The fees are non-negotiatiable and mandatory. Judges and magistrates have no ability to waive them in cases of financial hardship. The government plans to set debt collectors on people who may be in genuine financial hardship, driving a further wedge between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. I'm surprised, given the Liberal Democrats' desire to distance themselves from some of the more egregious aspects of Conservative policy, that Nick Clegg has not been vocal in his condemnation of these fees.
I have previously voted Conservative, but I'm afraid they've lost me with an alien political philosophy that rides roughshod over one of the most fundamental British principles: fairness. They have embarked upon a money orientated social crusade that is patently unfair not only to the vulnerable and underprivileged, but also to the average man and woman in the street. Corrupting one of the fundamental principles of Magna Carta and subverting legal rights that have endured for hundreds of years cannot be what true conservatism is about.
I met David Cameron shortly before the last election and he seemed like a fair and reasonable man. The policies his government has implemented have not been fair or reasonable. The coalition faced a number of difficult choices when it came to power - Britain is broke and we continue to live beyond our means. But the government's default solution to most problems has been to put the greatest pressure on the weak. It has continued the massive transfer of debt that was started under Brown, which saw taxpayers assume the liabilities of the financial sector. Despite their claims of fiscal probity, the coalition has presided over the largest increase in the national debt of any British government in history. But it isn't just government debt that should be causing concern. Prior to 2008, the Bank of England held no British debt. It now owns record amounts in the form of gilts. The UK has effectively been buying its own debt and as a result has propped up and further inflated the asset value of the "haves".
All the while the government has been punishing the "have nots", slashing benefits, introducing the bedroom tax, and sitting idle as more than half-a-million people turn to food banks in one of the most productive countries in the world. The NHS is slowly being privatised without any public mandate and TTIP, a treaty that might subjugate nation states to the desires of big business, is currently being negotiated in secret.
The introduction of these mandatory fees is another nail in the coffin of fairness. Not many people would claim to be fans of criminals, but people in the dock aren't criminals, they're innocent, and the presumption of innocence requires them not to be treated as criminals until they are convicted. These fees will almost certainly have the effect of convincing some people who might be innocent to plead guilty.
In the Joel Schumacher classic, Falling Down, William Foster, played by Michael Douglas, passes a man protesting the fact he has been categorised as "not economically viable". Swathes of British society have been categorised in this way by the Conservatives and they are slowly being ground into the dirt. And now they might end up in court faced with the prospect of a crippling bill for simply exercising their ancient right to plead innocent.