A senior figure in the House of Lords has expressed fears of ‘production-line justice’ in the courts amid concerns from some parts of the magistracy over latest increases in the government’s victim surcharge.
Labour peer and solicitor Lord Beecham (Jeremy Beecham, pictured) says frustrations expressed to him by a magistrate following a recent case ‘disclose a matter for real concern given magistrates’ hands are tied in being required to impose what is, in effect, an additional penalty without discretion, in circumstances which are unrealistic’.
Beecham said the situation seemed ‘utterly ridiculous’. Although he was sympathetic of the process in courts, Beecham said it was ‘turning into production-line justice’.
The victim surcharge was introduced by the government in April 2007, and was paid only by people punished with a fine, at a flat rate of £15. It was increased and extended in 2012.
Further increases have come into force for offences committed on or after 8 April this year.
Offenders who are fined will pay 10% of the fine value, up to £170, compared to a maximum of £120 for one or more offences committed before 8 April.
Those who receive community sentences will be required to pay an £85 surcharge, compared to £60 for offences committed before 8 April.
Surcharges for suspended sentence orders and immediate custody (six months or less) have increased by £35 for all offences committed on or after 8 April.
The magistrate told Beecham that they did not object to offenders receiving an additional charge, but were also aware that those leaving custody who are on benefits have to wait up to six weeks for their benefit payments to recommence.
‘How on earth will they be in a position to pay a minimum of £115 two weeks after they are released, which is the order we make?’ the magistrate said.
‘We are setting these people up to fail. We have never fined nor charged prosecution costs for defendants going into custody so that when they leave they will have a clean slate, so why are they doing this, and [increasing it]?’
The Ministry of Justice told the Gazette that the latest change has increased the victim surcharge by the rate of inflation, plus a one-off 5% uplift. The surcharge has not increased since 2012, meaning that its value has diminished in real terms as a result of inflation, the department added.
‘This government puts the highest emphasis on the needs of victims and it is absolutely right that offenders take greater financial responsibility in helping victims recover from crime,’ a spokesperson for the ministry said.
‘The victim surcharge helps fund vital support, ranging from help with home security through to specialist counselling so victims can get the help they need, when they need it.’