The government’s criminal court charge could be introducing plea-bargaining through the back door, a leading thinktank has warned.
Submitting written evidence to a justice select committee inquiry, the Centre for Justice Innovation said it was ‘troubled’ the charge was making defendants change their pleas ‘in order to avoid running the risk of incurring excessive penalties’.
The Ministry of Justice introduced the new charges in March. Defendants convicted by a magistrates’ court for a summary offence on a guilty plea are charged £150. Conviction in the magistrates’ court at trial of a summary offence incurs a £520 charge.
In the Crown court, a conviction on a guilty plea costs £900, while those convicted at a trial on indictment pay £1,200. The government stated in March that it wanted to ensure that criminals contribute towards the cost of their court cases.
The centre said the charge had the ‘hallmarks’ of a plea-bargaining system.
‘While we take no position on whether plea-bargaining would be useful in England and Wales, we do urge the committee to consider whether the criminal court charge is introducing plea-bargaining through the back door by making people (who would have previously fought their case) decide to plead guilty to avoid the negative consequences of the charge,’ it said.
The charge ‘negatively’ impacted defendants’ perceptions of procedural fairness - the process by which decisions are made needs to feel fair to people coming to court - the charity said.
‘The clear message [from the MoJ] is that collection of the criminal courts charge will be used to support the running costs of the court,’ it warned.
‘This gives the courts system a financial interest in the verdict of the court. This may lead defendants to feel the court is not neutral in reaching its decisions.
‘If they feel that the court hearing their case has an apparent financial interest in the case, they may feel the court is not neutral when dealing with them.’
The centre urged the government to bring forward a scheduled review of the charge to the ‘earliest possible opportunity’.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: 'It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.
'Offenders can pay in affordable installments linked to their ability to pay. Magistrates and judges do not have to order prompt payment in full.'