Society outrage at ‘back door’ criminal court fees
Suspects pleading not guilty in the Crown court will risk paying a court fee of £1,200 if convicted under guidelines slipped into legislation without debate in the final days of the current parliament.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen (pictured) described the new charges as ‘outrageous’ and a threat to fair trials.
The new set of criminal court charges comes into force from 13 April after being laid before parliament last week.
Currently, judges can require criminals to pay fines and costs, while convicted individuals have to pay a mandatory victim of crime surcharge of up to £120.
The charges follow the introduction earlier this month of a new 5% levy for civil claims over £10,000.
The new criminal court charges were laid as a statutory instrument enabled by a clause of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, which was granted royal assent in February.
Defendants convicted by a magistrates’ court for a summary offence on a guilty plea will be charged £150. Conviction in the magistrates’ court at trial of a summary offence will incur a £520 charge.
Those convicted of an either-way offence at a magistrates’ court trial will be charged £1,000.
In the Crown court, a conviction on a guilty plea will be charged £900, while those convicted at a trial on indictment will have to pay £1,200.
The charges have already been criticised for being likely to encourage innocent people to plead guilty.
In a statement on the charges, justice secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘From my first day in this job I have been clear that people must have confidence in our justice system. We’re on the side of people who work hard and want to get on, and that is why these reforms will make sure that those who commit crime pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.’
But solicitors have asked why the decision appears to have been made with such haste and an apparent lack of consultation.
The ability to change criminal court charges has long been included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, but as recently as a year ago it was reported that charges would be capped at £600. There are also questions about how the government will ensure the charges are collected from those convicted of petty offences.
Caplen told the Gazette that the proposed charges are ‘outrageous’ and remove all elements of discretion.
He added: ‘Although this will not affect the robust advice that solicitors give to those who maintain their innocence, the differential in the charge for a guilty and not guilty plea may well affect the decision made by individual defendants.
‘We are unaware of there having been any form of consultation as to these amounts. It is particularly disturbing that the government has tabled these regulations, which will be subject to no debate, in the final week of this parliament.’
Justin Rivett, solicitor and Crown court advocate at Sussex firm Warren’s, said: ‘This is one of the most significant changes ever to be made to the sentencing process and it has been brought in by the back door, by way of a statutory instrument, thus avoiding any appropriate scrutiny, debate and challenge.
‘It has received virtually no media attention to date, unlike the recent changes made to civil court fees.
‘The effect of the charges is to impose a very significant additional mandatory financial penalty on defendants, regardless of the seriousness of the offence or the defendant’s financial or personal circumstances.’