Asbo from flickr, under creative comms, bixentroA controversial new mandatory court charge imposed on defendants found guilty on trial has led to a mass exodus from the magistracy. It has only been three months since rules were changed so that defendants can now be charged up to £1200 and it has been reported that up to 30 Magistrates have resigned in protest to a charge that has been imposed on a homeless man stealing a can of Red Bull and a teenager stealing sweets.

Having already witnessed unprecedented cuts to legal aid, the culling of solicitors’ firms and the closure of 400 Magistrates’ courts, why should this particular rule-change cause such a stir amongst the magistracy?

Talking to, John Jennings, former chair of Swaleside Magistrates Court, said that forcing a person to pay a hefty fee if they maintained their innocence yet were found guilty was a ‘ludicrous’ step.

‘Everyone has the right to come to court and state their case, you cannot impose automatic penalties for doing so,’ Jennings said. The criminal court charge is addition to any fines or other costs including compensation orders and victim surcharges and costs. If defendants do not pay, then they risk being sent to prison.

Chris Grayling justified the mandatory charge, saying: ‘We’re on the side of people who work hard and want to get on, and that is why these reforms will make sure that those who commit crime pay their way and contribute towards the cost of their court cases.’

‘There is a clear danger of miscarriages of justice,’ John Jennings said. Whilst ‘there has always been the possibility of encouraging a defendant to plead ‘not guilty’, for instance by giving him time to speak with his lawyer and consider his options’, these new fines would place unacceptable pressure on people to plead guilty at an early stage to avoid the risk of paying penalties later. A move which would have a particularly harsh impact on the poor, Jennings added.

‘These penalties fail to take into account people’s ability to pay. If people can’t pay, you’re wasting everybody’s time in imposing a heavy fine,’ he continued. Jennings found that automatic or mandatory penalties in any form tend to lead to ‘poor and shabby justice’.

‘Every case is different. It is make-believe to suggest that a fine of £1,000 has the same impact on everyone. To one person a £1,000 fine may cause them to complain and be unhappy about paying it but they will get by; to another it will utterly ruin them. Equally, look at fixed driving penalties, you could be just over the drink-drive limit and face an automatic license revocation; for this particular defendant losing a driving license would also mean losing his job. For another, it doesn’t bother him in the slightest, he can hire a chauffeur.’
John Jennings, former chair of Swaleside Magistrates Court

The Howard League for Penal Reform today called for an immediate review of the charge. It cited examples of the mandatory charge applying to a homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull and was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge, and a teenager who stole £5 of sweets who had to pay a £180 charge, a £20 victim surcharge and £85 costs. ‘Up and down the country, people are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances,’ commented Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. ‘Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts. With more budget cuts on the way, ministers should be looking to shrink the system, not trapping more people in it for absurd offences.’

The group also quoted a letter to the Shields Gazette. ‘I am due to appear at Newcastle Crown Court in two weeks for an offence that I did not commit,’ it said. ‘I had planned on pleading not guilty, however I have been told that if I am found guilty I will have over £1,000 in costs to pay. Is this true?’

Commenting in the Law Gazette, Justin Rivett, solicitor and Crown court advocate called the charge ‘one of the most significant changes ever to be made to the sentencing process and it has been brought in by the back door, by way of a statutory instrument, thus avoiding any appropriate scrutiny, debate and challenge’.

Last week the government revealed that it was planning yet further increases to court fees, meaning that people bringing a money claim to court could pay up to £20,000 to have their case heard, whilst the price of bringing an immigration and asylum case would double in all but ‘the most vulnerable’ of cases. Commenting on those changes, President of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, said that the Government is ‘selling justice like a commodity.’







Profile photo of Christabel Mccooey About Christabel Mccooey
Christabel works part-time for Speak, a charity of global justice campaigners. She hopes to practise as a barrister abroad focusing on the death penalty and human rights

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  • Just William August 5, 2015 4:48 pm

    Yes! £1200 for being convicted after maintaining your innocence is not good but neither is it good that my sentence to prison was increased by 50% – from 56 months to 7 years. This was also because I maintained my innocence and still do. Now I often say to Justice employed Public Servants that I will gladly give £1,000 for every statement that can prove I sexually assaulted anyone – and not just my accuser. It is also a further fact that no official takes up this offer because I was convicted by cultural prejudice and all evidence against me is farcical.
    Why was I convicted? This is because cultural prejudice is now being allowed to convict a person because of a 1998 change in the law. This change reinstated the medieval 1580 witchcraft law which allows a pointing finger with its attached to gossip to convict a person which is supported when the Judge sums up the case by saying – short version- “He says he did not and she says he did – what do you say Jury”.
    Simple put if you change the word witchcraft to sexual assault – you have this new law for any pointing finger can target a man and accuse him of “witchcraft” (sexual assault) at any time in his life, be it 50 or 60 years in the past. I further understand that he has a 95% of being found guilty and imprisoned for many years and this new witchcraft law can be applied against any man as it was me. Sadly this prejudice does not end at conviction, for the accuser can obtain no win no fee lawyers and go to trial to obtain “compensation” for between £5,000 and £50,000 which also happened to me. Then the lawyers legally charged me their clients fee of £54,981 with this being for a 30 minute undefended compensation case making a total loss to me of £73,635 (my accuser obtained £18,654)
    Why was I undefended? Because a few weeks after my imprisonment the accusers lawyers placed a freezing Injunction upon my assets and refused not only to allow me to obtain finance to defend myself at their compensation case but more seriously they refused to allow me legal fees to appeal against my conviction. They did this by saying in a letter to me “It was expressly stated by the presiding judge that funds would not be made available to you to instigate and appeal against your criminal conviction” so I was legally stopped from appealing for the whole of my 3½ years imprisonment.
    This Refusal to allow finances for legal representation also continued through six hearings in which I disputed their fees, 4 in which I never spoke but heard the judge say to these lawyers at three of these hearings that they should release £2000 for legal fees – but they never did. At the fifth hearing the judge stood up and said he had no idea why he was there – and walked out and at the sixth appointed hearing the judge cancelled the hearing upon receiving a letter from these refusing lawyers, who then went to my bank and showed to them a letter upon which they emptied all my accounts even though there was never a court order saying that they could do so. I never spoke at any of these hearing except to say that I wanted an oral hearing to discuss the lawyer’s fee and at each hearing I thought the Freezing injunction would end and I could try for an appeal against my conviction.
    Yes! This is our Justice system and it gets worse. For the above dispute, in which I searched for fees to appeal against my conviction, continued until I was released from prison upon which I immediately constructed an appeal against the compensation case in which I could conclusively prove that over 85% of my accuser’s statements that were laid again me at this compensation case were all proven to be false – this by the use of previous police statement and several independent witness.
    This appeal again the compensation case was sent to the Royal Courts in London and I received the decision stating “Refused, as being totally without merit and the applicant may not request the decision to be considered at an oral hearing”. There was also five reasons put forward which were the judge’s opinions all of which could easily be disproved by 3rd parties as incorrect viewpoints. I was particularly alarmed one reason being “potential unfairness to the respondent who has had an unchallenged order in her favour for so long”, and “I cannot accept that a difficulty in finding representation is an excuse for a delay of over 2½” I was in prison and the other “reasons” can also be proved to be incorrect – were is our law?
    Oh! And how did all my troubles all begin? After my solicitor informed me that the CPS had refused all charges against me which was good for in all my adult 70 years I had never been in trouble with the law so I sent 6 letters of complaints about my inhuman arrest and imposed bail conditions to the Chief Constable. Then a week later I received a phone call from the detective in charge of my case saying that the CPS had decided to reopen my case so my complain could not be dealt with in case they effected the jury – 18 months later they were still interviewing people but no new evidence came forward and I was not worried about my trial for there was no evidence against me – sadly I was wrong and five years later I am still being punished as a slave – why a slave? Because a slave is controlled by the opinions of his master and not the rule of the residing countries law and this slave law is currently moving into all our legal systems – unless it is stopped and even with strong proof of how “illegal” our justice system is I have tried to engage many solicitors – all of who want money which I have no longer have and I know of no other way to bring Justice to our Justice system and so stop the penetration of slave laws into our legal system which is starting with the poor and advancing towards all the General Public.
    Yes! Charged £1200 for maintaining your innocence but being found guilty is not good – but what about the above?
    Just William

  • Gerald Cooper August 10, 2015 10:35 pm

    I have just read the details of the mandatory Court charge for defendants found guilty. I believe this is most unfair and will deprive many of justice. The police today pursue many cases that are totally without foundation. They believe that through lies, deception and manipulation they can secure convictions. This measure is another nail in the coffin of the legal system. If we are not careful anyone accused by the police will be guaranteed a conviction, whatever the evidence may say. The trouble is politicians do not know how corrupt the system has become.

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