Jeremy Beecham on his Regret Motion against the government’s ill-defined criminal law charges
Among the many dubious legacies bequeathed to Michael Gove by his predecessor as Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, perhaps the most misconceived is the Criminal Courts Charge Regulations Order.
Those convicted of criminal offences rightly face the prospect of fines, contributions to prosecution costs, and compensation to victims. Plus something towards court costs might also be reasonable. But this Order, tabled just before the dissolution of the last Parliament, without consultation and coming into force on 13 April , imposes a rigid structure of charges. Charges that allow neither judicial discretion on the amount nor regard towards the defendant’s means.
So, someone pleading guilty to the magistrates will be charged £150, which in many cases will exceed the fine, costs and compensation. If defendants are convicted after a not guilty plea, the charge will be £520, or £1000 in what is called an ‘either way case’ – one that could be heard at the magistrates or Crown Court. Pleading guilty in the latter will attract a fee of £900, while those whose ‘not guilty’ plea is followed by a conviction will pay £1200.
The uniform imposition of these charges is contrary to the courts’ current approach, which takes into consideration the nature of the offence and the effect, including financial, of fines and costs already levied. Magistrates and others are not only concerned about the potential impact on those convicted, but the likelihood that some defendants will plead guilty rather than risk a massive hike in their financial penalty. Already some courts are ordering an absolute discharge, which both avoids the imposition of the charge and nullifies the possibility of a victim compensation order. And at least 50 magistrates are known to have retired from the Bench in protest.
Nor can it be assumed that the Ministry of Justice’s estimated yield from the charges, between £65m and £95m annually, will be easily achieved. After all, it was reported earlier this year that there are £549m of uncollected fines, and that 61% will get written off.
The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee criticised the timing of implementation, before Parliament had any chance of considering the Order and added, tellingly, that 'the lack of an updated estimate of the sum likely to be raised' made it 'impossible to take a clear view of how the regulations will serve their intended purpose'. Most of what has been levied since April relates to guilty pleas and only now are we seeing trials proceeding, with the imposition of larger charges to come.
“The fact that no account is taken of ability to pay and the lack of discretion means that the charge as currently constituted is not in accordance with the principles of justice”. Not my words, but those of the Magistrates Association when responding to the Justice Select Committee inquiry. Meanwhile, almost 93% of magistrates surveyed by the Association thought the charges have been set at unreasonable levels, with 84% saying the process should be means-tested. And add to all of this, the Lord Chief Justice's observation this week that the charges "imperil a core principle of Magna Carta", then something's clearly not right.
I hope now that Mr Gove, who has abandoned one ill-conceived project of Mr Grayling’s (the secure college for young offenders), will see sense once more and revise these deeply flawed regulations at the earliest opportunity.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is a Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham
Published 9th October 2015