The Bar Council has warned of the dangers of new government-imposed court charges, fearing that they’ll ‘incentivise’ defendants to plead guilty in criminal cases.
In this article, we’ll look at how new criminal court charges could encourage innocent defendants to plead guilty, and why they could put real justice out of reach.
Are New Criminal Court Charges in Breach of Magna Carta?
In the case of a guilty plea, new criminal court charges require defendants to pay £150 in charges, but only impose £1200 charges on convicted defendants. Peers and Bar Council members agree that the charges are putting justice even further out of reach of most people and, according to Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, ‘imperilling a core principle of Magna Carta.’
“The charges will be seen by most defendants as arbitrary, onerous and basically unfair. They will create a ‘legitimacy deficit’ in the system”
The controversial charges were imposed in April 2015 by the then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, and have caused their fair share of controversy. Many believe that the financial state of the defendant will wrongly dictate court outcomes, doubt whether the debts will even be collected and as many as 50 magistrates across England and Wales have resigned in protest against the charges.
Andrew Macdonald QC, chair of the Bar Council, has spoken out against the ‘unfair’ charges. He argues that court charges shouldn’t dictate whether a defendant pleads guilty or not.
“Faced with the prospect of a court charge that could be significantly higher than the penalties for a particular offence, defendants who are innocent may have little choice but to plead guilty simply to avoid the financial risk of having to pay a hefty court fee if they are convicted after a trial.”
Neither magistrates nor judges have any discretion in applying the charge, and Macdonald fears that the new charges will lump the likes of professional shoplifters in with desperate parents who steal to feed their children in together. As Shadow Justice Minister Lord Beecham pointed out:
“A 32-year-old woman, Louise Sewell, stole Mars bars worth 75p from a shop in Kidderminster. She was undergoing a benefits sanction and had not eaten for two days. She pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a criminal charge of £150.”
Spokespeople for the Ministry of Justice justify the charges by asserting that courts need to recover some of the charges associated with criminal prosecution. What do you think about the new charges? How do you think they’ll affect justice for all?