Dozens of magistrates have quit the profession in protest at what they see as unfair and illogical criminal court charges.
Richard Monkhouse (pictured), chairman of the Magistrates Association, said that around 30 resignations had been recorded by July and it is likely to be ‘well in excess’ of that number now.
Monkhouse suggested that guilty pleas are being forced from innocent people, while victim compensation is being hit as magistrates try to work out ways to ensure all fixed costs are paid.
The Ministry of Justice introduced the fixed costs under the last government, charging defendants convicted in the magistrates’ court on a guilty plea £150 and £520 for those convicted after a magistrates’ court trial.
In the Crown court, a conviction on a guilty plea costs £900, while those convicted at a trial on indictment pay £1,200.
Monkhouse said the majority of his association’s members are not opposed to charges in principle, but told the Gazette that the charges were rushed through, disproportionately affect the poor and are unlikely to be paid in any case.
‘We know there are defendants around the country who are saying “I’m not guilty” but they will plead guilty because of the risk the financial impact will be greater,’ he said. ‘Our members tell us people are being pressured into pleading guilty because the defendant thinks it will cost them money.’
Monkhouse said there is anecdotal evidence that victim compensation has been reduced in some cases because magistrates know defendants cannot afford the new charges on top.
‘Most of the people dealt with in magistrates’ courts are not particularly wealthy and some are stealing to eat, yet we are slapping this charge on them.’
The Magistrates Association is calling for an immediate review of the charges which will include means testing them – and if necessary charging those prolonging trials for weeks more than the £1,200 cap. The organisation wants more discretion given to magistrates to set different levels of charges.
Monkhouse said morale is low among magistrates, who are imposing charges in the knowledge that many will never be paid.
‘If this is government’s attempt to get defendants to pay for the system it is not going to work,’ he said.
‘Defendants don’t understand the make-up of the imposition. They just want the total.
‘You can almost see the two fingers waving at you as they walk out of court. Our members know it’s happening. Every magistrate in the country will have seen circumstances in which they have they have sat and thought “this is just unfair and not what I signed up for”.’
The MoJ has confirmed that a review of the charges is required by April 2018 but there are no plans to bring it forward.
A ministry spokesperson said: ‘It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.
‘The introduction of this charge makes it possible to recover some of the costs of the criminal courts from these offenders, therefore reducing the burden on taxpayers.’