A cross-party group of MPs today calls for the immediate abolition of the controversial criminal courts charge.
The justice committee of the House of Commons said it had ‘grave misgivings’ about the operation of the charge and called for legislation to repeal it.
The committee’s report expresses ‘serious concern’ about the charge introduced by former justice secretary Chris Grayling in April, which is intended to make convicted people pay towards the costs of the courts. But Grayling's successor Michael Gove has ordered a review of the charge and speculation has mounted in recent weeks that he may be minded to scrap it.
Defendants are charged £150 for a guilty plea in a magistrates’ court and £520 if convicted following a not guilty plea, although the charge can be rescinded after two years if it is found the individual has not paid and cannot afford to do so.
The justice committee said levels of the charge were ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the means of many offenders and the gravity of the offences. The report also criticised the lack of discretion enjoyed by magistrates and judges, the capacity of the charge to raise expected revenue and the effect of levels of non-payment on respect for the legal process.
By rewarding those who plead guilty, the charge had created ‘perverse incentives’ affecting defendant and sentencer behaviour, which had a knock-on effect on awards made to victims and to Crown Prosecution Service costs.
Committee chair Bob Neill MP (pictured), said: ‘The evidence we have received has prompted grave misgivings about the operation of the charge, and whether, as currently framed, it is compatible with the principles of justice.
‘In many cases it is grossly disproportionate, it fetters judicial discretion, and creates perverse incentives - not only for defendants to plead guilty but for sentencers to reduce awards of compensation and prosecution costs. It appears unlikely to raise the revenue which the government predicts.’
If the government is not minded to abolish the charge, the committee said, it should as an ‘irreducible minimum’ allow magistrates and judges to decide whether to impose the charge and how much to require defendants to pay.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said it is 'pointless and costly' to pursue criminal court charges from people who cannot afford to pay. He welcomed the committee's report and agreed that 'double discretion' should be imposed even if the charge has to remain.
'Those accused of wrongdoing are very often amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in society, yet courts have no discretion as to whether to apply this charges as the court is not able to take into account the defendant's circumstances.'
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said the scheme allows for instalment payments from offenders and that it is generating revenue which helps to ease the burden on the taxpayer. He added that the justice system already creates incentives for those who enter early guilty pleas.
'As the justice secretary has said, we note the concerns which have been expressed and are keeping the operation of the charge under review.'