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From April 13 2015, a new Criminal Courts Charge has been introduced in England and Wales. Announced by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling back in March, this charge of between £150 and £1200, depending on the type of case, is not means-tested.
The Criminal Courts Charge will be levied in addition to the monies which those convicted of an offence currently have to pay. These include the prosecution’s legal costs, a compensation payment to the victim of their crime and a Victim Surcharge – which funds victims’ services. All of these charges are in addition to the sentence the guilty person receives, which can itself take the form of a fine.
Where costs awards differ from the new Criminal Courts Charge, is that they are set by the courts individually in each case, based on what the court decides it would be “just and reasonable” for the convicted person to pay.
The new charges have already come in for criticism from a number of prominent figures and organisations in the legal sector, including the Law Society, which called the introduction of the fees “disturbing” and Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who said that the charges were nonsensical, as in many criminal cases, those found guilty “do not have the means to pay”.
Currently, hundreds of millions of pounds in unpaid fees are owed to the courts service by people who have been convicted of an offence. Announcing the new charges last month, Mr Grayling estimated they could raise £135 million a year, reducing the “burden (of the running costs of the criminal justice system) on hardworking taxpayers”.
However Richard Monkhouse of the Magistrates Association, speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live criticised the estimate of the amount of money that charge could bring in, saying: “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.”
Here at Canter Levin & Berg Solicitors, our Criminal Law department provides legal representation to people accused of an offence. We asked Richard Hughes, one of our specialist criminal law solicitors for his opinion on the new charges and how they would affect people who have been found guilty of a criminal offence:
“These new charges are outrageous and a threat to a fair trial. Although this will not affect the robust advice that solicitors give to those who maintain their innocence, the difference in the charges for a guilty and not guilty plea may well affect the decision made by individual defendants.
This is 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.
The effect of the charges is to impose a very significant additional mandatory financial penalty on defendants, regardless of the seriousness of the offence or the defendant’s financial or personal circumstances.”