by Lyndon Harris
The charge has been deeply criticised by the defence community in several respects.
First, that the charge is not means tested (in the same way that fines and compensation orders are, for example) and so a poor defendant who cannot afford to pay a fine (or perhaps only a nominal fine) will still be liable for the charge; a default on the charge will result in a further court appearance. Ministry of Justice guidance states: “If default in paying the Criminal Courts Charge by an offender is due to their wilful refusal or culpable neglect and all other enforcement steps have been exhausted, then the ultimate sanction of ordering them to serve a term of imprisonment can be used as a last resort.”
Second, the price for contesting a trial in the Crown Court is a whopping £1,200. Some have criticised the charge as forcing defendants to plead guilty, commenting that their advice to their clients may well have to be that they cannot afford to contest their case.
Third, some lawyers have criticised the charge as being incapable of working in practice; if offenders do not have the ability to pay, then it is a waste of scarce resources to pursue the outstanding charges. Further, to imprison some of the defaulters is to waste yet further public money on prison places we simply do not have.
So what then, is the rationale behind the charge? Is it “a spiteful attack on poor people” and a “tax on the poor”?
To answer that question, it is necessary to examine the figures. The sums range from £150 (guilty plea to a summary only offence in the magistrates’ courts) to £1,200 (conviction after a trial on indictment in the Crown Court), but as ever, the devil is in the detail.
The difference between a guilty plea and a trial in the Crown Court is very little: £900 (plea) £1,200 (trial). In the magistrates’ court, as HLE contributor David Allan noted, the figures are more disparate: £150 (plea, summary only offence) £520 (trial, summary only offence). Can it be said that these figures represent the costs of those hearings? Of course not. Nor could they. A trial in the Crown Court could last a day, six weeks or six months. A “flat rate” of £1,200 bears no resemblance to the cost of running a Crown Court courtroom for those periods of time. And so the idea that the charge relates to how much time/money your case has taken is a falsehood.
However it must be said that there is good reason for that. If the charges were indexed to the length of time a case took, or the approximate cost of an individual case, there would be legitimate complaints that there was undue pressure placed on a defendant to plead guilty (because the cost of taking a plea and sentence is often very small in relation to a trial lasting days or weeks). With the figures for convictions after pleas and trials so similar, any legitimate criticism is avoided – again, as David Allan noted, “you are pretty-well damned either way”.
So what is the rationale? Well as ever with criminal justice legislation, it would appear to involve politics. As we are often told, this government “is on the side of hard-working tax payers”, and so a new bit of legislation to reduce the burden on the public purse is seen as a vote winner. In truth, there is probably an element of genuinely attempting to recover some money (and in that regard I am unsure whether many of the criticisms of the legislation are justified).
What is clear, however, is that the fact that the levels of the charge actually recovered are likely to be low, and that the charge is going to disproportionately affect those without means is neither here nor there when a few favourable headlines can be bought in the run up to an election.