Fees are being introduced for hearings at magistrates’ courts. At what price fairness, wonders PETER FROST
MAGISTRATES used to be drawn from all strata of society, at least in theory. True, there was always a high proportion of country squires and ladies of leisure sitting on the bench. But at one time there was a good sprinkling of working-class magistrates too.
However a recent official report concluded that magistrates were middle-class, middle-aged, middle-minded and middle-of-the-road. More than a third are over 60. Employers are more reluctant to give paid time off for such civic duties so more and more magistrates are those that have no need to work. Less than 8 per cent come from black or ethnic minority backgrounds.
Now things are getting even worse. More than 50 magistrates have resigned from the bench in protest against new Tory court charges. These magistrates are disgusted that the new fees are designed to encourage innocent people to plead guilty.
Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “It is deeply worrying that we’re losing such numbers of experienced magistrates.”
It is just another example of how Cameron and his mean Tory government are slowly eroding people’s rights.
This time the right under threat is the right to justice and the method they are using, like all their policies, hits hardest at the poor in society and gives the most benefit to those with a bob or two.
We have seen the erosion of meaningful legal aid making any kind of justice beyond the financial means of so many people.
The huge fees now required to take a case to industrial tribunals and therefore letting so many unfair employers off the hook are another example.
Now the government and Justice Secretary Michael Gove are overseeing the charging of large court fees, attaching hefty financial costs to the right to have your day in court.
The new court charge is not means-tested or adjusted according to the seriousness of the crime. In the magistrates’ court it is fixed at £150 if someone pleads guilty, but it can rise to £1,000 if they fight the case and are found guilty.
For homeless and poor people who are caught shoplifting, it now means the courts are forced to impose the charge which is often more than a hundred times the value of what they stole.
Pressure to reform the criminal courts charge, which was introduced earlier this year by Gove’s predecessor Chris Grayling (below), has increased as more cases emerge of poor people being forced to pay hundreds of pounds for minor offences — in addition to any fines.
Among those speaking out against the charges is a crown court judge, Christopher Harvey Clark QC (below). He was forced to impose a £900 charge on a defendant who pleaded guilty to an offence after his case was sent to the Truro Crown Court.
Judge Clark told the defendant: “The charge has no bearing on your ability to pay. It is totally inappropriate for people of no means to have to pay this charge.
“It happens to be government policy but as an independent judge I regard it as extremely unfair and, although I have to impose it, I do so with immense reluctance.”
Mark Fenhalls QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents barristers, said: “The criminal courts charge is deeply unjust. Magistrates and judges should be allowed to set any court charge according to the individual’s means. Judges can and should be trusted to make the right decision.”
Let’s look at just one very sad example of how the charges work in practice.
Gavin Lee tried to commit suicide by throwing himself under a truck, but none came along so he threw himself in front of an off-duty policeman’s Mercedes in a suicide attempt. Sunderland Magistrates’ Court ordered the 26-year-old to old pay a £180 court charge just for trying his case. They also ordered him to pay £425 in compensation for the damage to the Mercedes. Lee had no previous convictions.
The new levy was introduced by former justice secretary Grayling. He claimed it was to make criminals pay for the upkeep of the courts. In fact it can mean the charge can be up to 10 times higher if someone is found guilty after pleading innocent.
The new charges have only one aim — to encourage innocent but poor defendants to plead guilty.
We must all put pressure on Gove (above) to ditch or reform these deeply unfair measures. But if he brings to his new job the Dickensian values he had when in charge of education, that doesn’t seem very likely.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 23 Sept 2015