In March 2015 the Adam Smith Institute found that 10% of prosecutions before magistrates’ courts in England and Wales were for the offence of not having a television licence. 70% of those convicted of that offence are women and the overwhelming reason for committing the offence was that they lacked the £145 licence fee, often because those women are seeking to raise children in poverty. The government has been clear that continuing to prosecute individuals for that offence is unjust so it would hypocritical to introduce a scheme that adds to the financial burden such offenders have to pay. It is also known that of the 3,000 people per week who are convicted of that offence one of them will be sent to prison for not paying the fine which places a financial burden on the taxpayer who must fund their place in prison and on the council tax payer who must fund the care that has to be provided for the children left behind.
As part of Chris Grayling’s slash and burn policy towards the criminal justice system whilst he was Lord Chancellor he decided that those who are convicted before the criminal courts should pay an additional mandatory non means tested charge to fund the system. Those charges came into force in respect of all offences, including those of not having a television licence, committed on or after the 13th April 2015. Those caught without a television licence will now face an additional financial burden of £150 if they plead guilty which rises to £520 if they dare to plead not guilty and are convicted. It also means that if they do not pay and they are the people most likely to be unable to pay, they will spender longer in prison for not doing so. You might be forgiven for thinking that is not the joined up government we were promised.
Of course you might be sitting back thinking that paying for the criminal justice system is what criminals really deserve to do. The trouble is that it could affect you too. All you need to do to qualify for the charge is miss a speed restriction sign and get caught exceeding the speed limit just enough to be summonsed to court. Motorists are the second largest group of criminals who trouble the courts and they can expect to be one of the biggest contributors to the scheme.
A conviction for speeding will result in a contribution of £150 to the running of the courts if you plead guilty or £520 if you plead not guilty. You will also be able to contribute a further 10% of the fine you will receive on top of the criminal courts charge by paying the compulsory victim surcharge and a further £85 in prosecution costs.
If you are charged with anything more serious, such a dangerous driving, and you run the risk of being sent t to the Crown Court where the charge goes up to a maximum of £1,200. Its mandatory, non means tested and you even have to pay it if you lost your job and are sent to prison. You may wonder how you are going to pay it but that concern will be one of the rewards for graduating as a criminal.
The problem with the criminal courts charge is that it is inflexible. Courts have absolutely no choice in imposing it even if they think it would be harmful to do so. This has not pleased the Magistrates’ Association or many of the magistrates it represents as an increasing of them have chosen to resign over it. Their concerns seem to be that in many cases the charge imposes an unjustifiable financial burden on those whose offending was driven by impoverishment in the first place and in some cases it is causing people to plead guilty when in reality they are not simply because of the fear of facing a charge they cannot pay. Magistrates have been directed to have no regard to the charge when fixing sentence, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are mitigating the effect of the charge by not awarding the prosecution their costs or reducing the level of compensation to victims.
The government recognises that there will be a high level of default in paying the charge as within regulation 4 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Criminal Courts Charge) Regulations 2015 which set the level of the charge and brought the scheme into force also set a 12 month limit after which a magistrates’ court will be able to remit the charge it had to impose against its better judgment in the first place.
The reality is that far from creating a scheme that will properly fund the criminal justice scheme Chris Grayling found a way of raising funny money that is as bankable and reliable as a Northern Rock bond or an MP’s expenses claim. Most of what is imposed will never be collected and the distress and costs of ineffective bailiff action will no doubt absorb much of what is eventually found. The only people who will make a substantial contribution to this scheme will be the errant overtaxed motorist who will reluctantly pay up as they always do for the privilege of maintaining their licence and employment. They as taxpayers will be left to pick up the consequential costs of this foolish and ill thought out venture.
It has to be hoped that Michael Gove will see through this scheme and bring to a hasty end before it collapses in chaos and a fog of bad publicityas Margaret Thatcher’s venture into unit fines did in 1993.