From today, anyone convicted of a criminal offence in England and Wales will be required to pay a charge of between £150 and £1200 in addition to their own legal costs and any fines or compensation that make up part, or all, of their sentence. The charges are non-means tested, with rates set according to the type of case being tried, rather than the defendant’s ability to pay. Magistrates and judges will have no discretion as to whether to apply the charges.
The introduction of the charges has been said to be ‘one of the most significant changes to be made to the sentencing process in recent years‘. Critics accuse the government of bringing the measure in by ‘the back door’, having tabled the regulations for the final week before the dissolution of Parliament. The Law Society has called introduction of the fees – not only were they not debated but there was no consultation – ‘disturbing’.
Meanwhile. more than eight out of 10 members of the public agreed that ‘legal aid and a fair trial’ were a British fundamental right (84%), according to a new You Gov poll commissioned by the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and published today. This was a higher figure that those who agreed that ‘healthcare at the point of use’ was such a right (82%). Almost nine out of 10 people polled (89%) described legal aid as ‘important’.
‘These facts nail the lie that people do not care about legal aid as a political issue,’said . It is an important and fundamental issue for politicians to note. Legal aid campaigners speak for the people. There MUST be proper funding for legal aid. It is a right not a benefit’
Robin Murray, CLSA’s vice chair
Chris Grayling has said that the new charge is to make convicts ‘pay their way’ as part of a ‘tough package of sentencing measures to make sure offenders are punished properly’. The justice secretary claimed to be motivated by reducing the ‘burden [of the running costs of the criminal justice system] on hardworking taxpayers’ and suggested that the system could raise £135 million annually after costs.
It remains to be seen whether the measures will result in offenders subsidising the justice system. For Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the measures are nonsensical given that current levels of outstanding court debts are already ‘so high because people do not have the means to pay’.
One assessment reckons the figure owed to the court service by 2020 could be as high as £1bn in unpaid fees. Speaking on Radio5 Live, Richard Monkhouse of the Magistrates Association said: ‘We see an awful lot of people who are offending because they have no money, so just slapping another fine on them isn’t actually going to make a big difference if they are unable to pay.’ ‘It is surely a waste of taxpayers’ money to pursue payment of these charges from people who are unlikely to ever have the means to pay,’ noted the Law Society. Despite calls from the Magistrates Association to review the new regulations in six months, the government plans to conduct a review after three years.
Given that the charge will apply to all convictions, breaches and failed appeals, convicts are likely to be faced with ‘multiple unpayable fines’ if they cannot afford to pay in the first instance. Crook described plans to imprison those who could not pay the charge as a return to the days of debtor’s prison. If individuals were imprisoned for non-payment of the charge, any money earned through the scheme is likely to be outweighed by the expense of imprisoning those who cannot pay – estimated to be at least £5 million.
Apart from economic concerns, some commentators made the point that an additional charges presented a ‘real danger’ that defendants would feel pressured into pleading guilty to crimes they have not committed. While ministers described the fines as ‘quite modest’, the sums were said to be ‘daunting’ for ‘the vast majority of people coming through the courts each day’. ‘Although this will not affect the robust advice that solicitors give to those who maintain their innocence, the differential…may well affect the decision made by individual defendants,’ said the Law Society president, Andrew Caplen. The Bar Council has come in for criticism from its own members for its apparent support for the new scheme. The body is ‘reviewing its policy on the criminal court fees’ as, according to Alistair MacDonald QC, ‘the government’s recent decision to charge convicted defendants fees of £1200 is completely unrealistic.’
Verity is a graduate of Cardiff University and an aspiring barrister. She is a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers Midlands group and volunteers with the Personal Support Unit