Thursday, 6 August 2015

Trouble in Court

It will come as no great surprise that yet another bad idea by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is beginning to unravel. This from the Guardian:- 

Magistrates resign over court charges that encourage innocent to plead guilty

Magistrates have begun to resign in protest at punitive court charges of up to £1,200 that they claim can never be collected and encourage the innocent to plead guilty. The criminal court charge came into effect in April as a means of ensuring that convicted adult offenders pay towards the cost of running the criminal justice system.

The hefty range of penalties is levied on top of fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges or prosecution costs already imposed on those who plead guilty or are convicted at magistrates’ or crown courts. When the criminal court charge was introduced by the last justice secretary, Chris Grayling, there were warnings the money could eventually prove to be uncollectable, particularly from those on benefits.

The Magistrates Association, which represents most magistrates in England and Wales, has confirmed that a number of experienced magistrates have resigned in protest at the charge.

Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates Association, 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 six-month 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.” Some reports suggest as many as 20 magistrates have now stood down.

The criminal court charge ranges from £150 for anyone who pleads guilty to a summary offence at magistrates’ court up to £1,000 for those convicted after a trial of a more serious offence at magistrates’ court. In the crown court, the charge ranges from £900 for a guilty plea up to £1,200 for conviction after trial. 
Because it costs far less to plead guilty rather than be convicted after a contested trial, some allege it creates a perverse incentive for the innocent to plead guilty rather than run the risk of failing to convince the court.

Bob Hutchinson, who was deputy bench chairman of the Fylde Coast magistrates, has resigned after 11 years. “People are expected to pay off their fines over a 12- to 18-month period,” he explained, “but 85% of people [who come before us] are on benefits and can only afford £5 a week. The criminal court charge – on top of victim surcharges, fines and compensation orders – makes a mockery of trying to pay money back over that period.”

Hutchinson said: “It’s a farce. I don’t think the government has thought this through. A lot of colleagues are imposing fines they know will never be collected. It will create a lot of resignations.”

George Lyons, who was a magistrate in North Tyneside for 15 years, has also given up his place on the bench. In a resignation letter to the Magistrates Association’s magazine, he warned that the charge puts pressure on people to admit crimes they have not committed in order to avoid a larger fines. This is a terrible piece of legislation introduced through the back door,” he wrote. The rules, over which magistrates have no discretion, would, he added, “criminalise many people because that is the option” for them. “Justice is only going to be for those who can afford it.”

Parliament has decided the matter needs looking at urgently:-

Justice Committee announces inquiry into courts and tribunals fees and charges.


Background

Over the course of the last Parliament the Coalition Government pursued policies aimed at decreasing the cost of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to the public purse, through the introduction of and increases to various fees and charges. These included the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, a regime of enhanced fees for civil proceedings, and a mandatory charge imposed on anyone convicted of a criminal offence.

The Justice Committee has decided to hold an inquiry into the effects of the introduction and levels of these fees and charges. The Committee welcomes views on any aspect of this subject, but would be particularly interested in submissions addressing any or all of the following questions:

  • How have the increased court fees and the introduction of employment tribunal fees affected access to justice? How have they affected the volume and quality of cases brought?
  • How has the court fees regime affected the competitiveness of the legal services market in England and Wales, particularly in an international context?
  • What have been the effects on defendants of the introduction of the criminal courts charge? Has the criminal courts charge been set at a reasonable and proportionate level? Is the imposition and collection of the charge practicable and, if not, how could that be rectified?
The deadline for written submissions to be made is Wednesday 30 September 2015.

And now the redoubtable Frances Crook of the Howard League is on the case:-

Howard League launches campaign for urgent Criminal Courts Charge review

A teenager who stole sweets and ice cream worth £5, a woman found begging in a car park and a man who kicked a flower pot after being stabbed are among thousands of people who have been ordered to pay a controversial new charge which penalises the poor and encourages the innocent to plead guilty.

Since April, magistrates and judges have been told that they must impose a mandatory Criminal Courts Charge of up to £1,200 on anyone convicted of an offence – whatever the defendant’s circumstances might be – on top of other levies such as fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and costs. Defendants who fail to find the money risk being sent to prison.

The government has said it will review the charge after three years, but today (Wednesday 5 August) the Howard League for Penal Reform has begun a campaign calling for the review to be brought forward to this autumn.

The charge puts pressure on people to plead guilty, as it rises from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates’ court to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. The charge at crown court is £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. There are even plans to charge interest.

The charge removes discretion from magistrates, some of whom are reported to be resigning in despair. In many cases, money will be wasted on pursuing debts that people simply cannot pay.

The Howard League has compiled a list of more then 30 cases, all reported by local media, which show why the Criminal Courts Charge is unfair and unrealistic. They include:

  • A 26-year-old homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge.
  • A 30-year-old homeless woman was convicted in her absence of begging in a car park in Coventry, West Midlands. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £30 fine and a £20 victim surcharge.
  • A 20-year-old man who was living in a hostel in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, kicked out at a flower pot after being stabbed with a needle by a fellow resident. He became homeless. He admitted criminal damage, which placed him in breach of two conditional discharges that were imposed on him for thefts. He was fined £70 and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £20 victim surcharge.
  • A 37-year-old woman who stole shampoo worth £2.39 from a shop in Banbury, Oxfordshire, was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £35 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.
  • A 41-year-old man who stole two tubs of ice cream worth £9.58 from a shop in Coventry, West Midlands, was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, £85 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.
  • A 27-year-old man who “trespassed” at a shop in Poole, Dorset, and stole three cans of drink to a value of £6.64 was ordered to pay £6.64 in compensation, a £15 victim surcharge and a £180 criminal courts charge.
  • A 26-year-old homeless man who admitted stealing drinks and chocolate worth £4.80 from a shop in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was jailed for four weeks because of his lengthy record and made to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and an £80 victim surcharge.
  • A 19-year-old man admitted stealing sweets and ice cream to the value of £5 from a supermarket in Torquay, Devon, whilst subject to a conditional discharge imposed for two thefts. He was ordered to pay a £35 fine, a £180 criminal courts charge, a £20 victim surcharge and £85 costs.
  • A 38-year-old homeless man admitted persistently begging in Oxford, Oxfordshire, and breached an Asbo prohibiting him from sitting within 10 metres of a cash machine. He was jailed for 30 days and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge.
  • A 31-year-old woman from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, admitted stealing shower gel worth £2.39 from a pharmacy. She was jailed for 14 days and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £20 victim surcharge and £2.39 in compensation.
One of the most troubling cases is that of a person who wrote to their local newspaper, the Shields Gazette, for advice about the charge.

In a letter published on the newspaper’s website in July, the person wrote: “I am due to appear at Newcastle Crown Court in two weeks for an offence that I did not commit. I had planned on pleading not guilty, however I have been told that if I am found guilty I will have over £1,000 in costs to pay. Is this true?”

In June, the Exeter Express & Echo reported on a case where a judge was required to impose a £900 charge on a homeless man who had admitted shoplifting.

The newspaper reported that, as the defendant was led away, the judge asked the courtroom: “He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“These cases are a snapshot of a failing criminal justice system. Up and down the country, people are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances.

Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts. With more budget cuts on the way, ministers should be looking to shrink the system, not trapping more people in it for absurd offences.

It was the French writer Anatole France, more than 100 years ago, who wrote that ‘In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread’. Now the law seems hell-bent on exacting charges from rich and poor alike for the privilege – but it is the poor who will find themselves entrenched in their poverty by these criminal charges.

We do not want to see the return of debtors’ prisons. It is time for an urgent review of this unfair and unrealistic sanction, which is doing nothing to tackle crime and, in all likelihood, is making matters worse.”


Postscript

It's been brought to my attention that certain Benches and DJ's are so fed up with having their hands tied by the lack of discretion that they've resorted to creative means in order to frustrate things, eg Sec 135 of Magistrates' Courts Act 1980:-

135 Detention of offender for one day in court-house or police station.

(1) A magistrates’ court that has power to commit to prison a person convicted of an offence, or would have that power but for section 82 or 88 above, may order him to be detained within the precincts of the court-house or at any police station until such hour, not later than 8 o’clock in the evening of the day on which the order is made, as the court may direct, and, if it does so, shall not, where it has power to commit him to prison, exercise that power.

(2) A court shall not make such an order under this section as will deprive the offender of a reasonable opportunity of returning to his abode on the day of the order.

7 comments:

  1. Absolute disgrace, justice for the rich

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    1. Justice has always been negotiable don't be so surprised . Ask any working class person they will have a story. It's still the same today post code justice.

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  2. I struggle to find anyone who supports this govt. apart from 2cps prosecutors who admit they voted for this shower - I sit in court every week and observe similar to the above -its like watching a particularly horrible act of bullying which everyone knows is wrong but does nothing to stop it - it feels we are trapped in a kind of hellish nightmare which is made worse by the realisation that this is real-we're not dreaming- meanwhile the media is frothing at the mouth in a macarthy-like hysteria about the possible election of a 'left-winger' to the leadership of the labour party-this includes the BBC whose snivelling obsequiousness towards all things government will not save them from the chop- please, please, wake me up and tell me this is all a horrible dream- I am in utter despair about what to do - all things that were previously solid and reliable seem to be suddenly made of sand

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  3. Let us remember that so many of Grayling"s ideas were based on ignorance and a total absence of consequential thinking skills. He was incompetent and has done an astonishing amount of damage to the CJS, much of which is still to be played out. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that he was ALLOWED to do this by Vameron, Clegg and the rest of them. People have DIED as a consequence of these policies. We MUST make sure the actions of this man are laid firmly at his door. He was an idiot surrounded by idiots and has done untold damage.

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    1. Unfortunately for us all ably supported by too many probation staff serving their mis -guided self interest. Worse yet the union seem to continually help them being confused about their role. Are we a union or a professional association doing professional stuff.

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  4. Thanks for yet another informative blog. Its astonishing that Grayling's many toxic legacies aren't making any waves in the wider media, and equally that the general public appear either ignorant of or indifferent to what's happening. Some TrueBlue relatives are horrified by the probation sell-off, but only after I explained to them what has actually happened. They had simply swallowed Tory propaganda about streamlining services, and washed it down with a nice bottle of something. Hopefully they will read this blog after being pointed in its direction. Today's headline blog will be another eye-opener for them. It might even get them to question what they are being fed?

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  5. Some cases will be on probation for life at this rate....how many ORAs can one have..I mean when someone is on 8 to nine plus Custody ORAs and has been recalled on each one and will not comply...where will it end...PSS just keeps getting longer and longer, recalls are through the roof and people are in and out of Prison like yo yos...custody is like a b&b to some.

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