Criminal Courts Charge

13 October 2015

Innocent people incentivised to plead guilty to avoid excessive court fees

- Bar Council warning

Defendants accused of a crime they have not committed will be incentivised to plead guilty to avoid new court charges in criminal cases, warns the Bar Council ahead of a debate in the House of Lords.

The Bar Council says the huge difference in charges imposed on those who have been convicted after a trial instead of pleading guilty may well influence a defendant's decision whether to plead guilty or not guilty. 

Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar, said: "The financial situation of a defendant cannot be ignored. 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. No one should be influenced by the extent of a court charge in making their decision about whether to plead guilty or have a trial. 

"This is just one major flaw in the system.  The court has ample powers to award costs and compensation against a person who pleads guilty or is convicted after a trial.  Those powers are exercised having taken into account the financial circumstances of the defendant.  There is no such discretion allowed in the case of court charges.  A parent who steals food as a last resort to feed their children when there has been a glitch in their benefit payments would face exactly the same court charge as a member of a professional shoplifting gang.  That cannot be right and the extent of the unfairness of these charges is demonstrated by the fact that 50 magistrates have resigned rather face the prospect of having to order defendants to pay these charges.  In at least one case, the magistrate has felt so strongly about the injustice of a charge that he paid the fee out of his own pocket. 

"Many of those appearing before the courts lead chaotic lives, are often homeless and will simply be unable to pay.  Not only that, but the imposition of a substantial charge is likely to damage the prospects of rehabilitation of the offender in the community.  People who have been convicted by the courts face great difficulty in obtaining employment after punishment and the fact that they face these charges, whether their punishment is to be undertaken in the community or on their release from prison, is likely to have very serious and damaging effects on the partners, spouses and children of defendants.

"Evidence shows that the Ministry of Justice has faced very difficult and costly problems in recovering fines and there is nothing to suggest that they will be any more successful in their ability to recover these court charges. Resources spent on recovering payments will be diverted from other, more pressing needs and the likelihood is that the costs of seeking to recover the charges will outweigh the sums recovered."

It is important to note, as stated earlier, that the Court is given no discretion to take into account a defendant's ability to pay under the criminal court fee regime, which was brought in under the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Criminal Courts Charge) Regulations 2015. The charges, which can be as high as £1,200, will, on many occasions, be significantly greater than the penalties for the offence.  The Bar Council has submitted evidence to the Justice Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the impact of increases in court fees and charges.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) the House of Lords is set to debate Lord Beecham's recent motion to regret the regulations, which were laid before Parliament by the Coalition Government earlier this year.

Ends

Notes to Editors 

1. Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 andPress@BarCouncil.org.uk.

2. The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales. It promotes: 

  • The Bar's high quality specialist advocacy and advisory services
  • Fair access to justice for all
  • The highest standards of ethics, equality and diversity across the profession, and
  • The development of business opportunities for barristers at home and abroad.

3. The General Council of the Bar is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board