A Conservative MP has clashed with campaigners over the benefits of the criminal courts charge during an exchange in parliament.
Members of four justice groups appeared before the House of Commons justice committee today to give their summary of the effects of an extra charge for convicted people since April.
The witnesses said evidence is emerging of innocent people being coerced into pleading guilty because they would face a £150 charge rather than one for £520 if convicted in the magistrates’ court.
It is estimated that defendants were required to pay around £5.7m from April to June – money which goes back into the financing of the courts system.
Shipley MP Philip Davies (pictured), a member of the committee, accused some of the groups of struggling to ‘differentiate between personal and political opinions and evidence’.
Addressing Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who suggested that beggars convicted of minor crimes are subject to the charge, he questioned her evidence basis, adding: ‘You have no idea, you just made that up to be emotional.’
Davies acknowledged the concerns that innocent people are forced to plead guilty, but he asked what evidence existed of the scale of that.
The MP added: ‘Would you all say this is simply a one-way street?
‘Would you perhaps concede that if [the charge is] encouraging innocent people to plead guilty, there’s half a chance that it may actually be encouraging guilty people to plead guilty? Does it only apply to innocent people pleading guilty? Or would anyone concede there is half a chance that it may encourage people to plead guilty rather than trying to work the system?’
Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said any system which introduces an element of ‘plea bargaining’ will convince some people to seek a ‘better deal’.
He added: ‘[I’ve seen] innocent people with two or three convictions behind them who went ‘actually on this I’m innocent, but what’s the point as the system is loaded against me. There are aspects of the criminal court charge which are like that.’
When Davies suggested the evidence basis for innocent people wrongly convicted was ‘one case’, Criminal Justice Alliance director Ben Summerskill replied: ‘It is a case we regard as reliable and I have to say, given my personal view of the importance of confidence in British justice, one case of someone pleading guilty to something they didn’t do is, with respect, one case too many.’
Summerskill also stated that he had heard directly from a judge based in London who had reduced the amount of victim compensation the defendant was required to pay, in the knowledge that the courts charge had to be added further down the line.
Malcolm Richardson, deputy chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said judges and magistrates were supposed to consider the charge only after compensation, Crown Prosecution Service costs and any fine, but added: ‘We are only human beings and we work the sums out.’