The Trial Tax

Parliament has dissolved and most lawyers are grateful to see the back of this administration. We all live in fear of what faces us come 8th May. But even to the last moment this Government produced a kick in the Crown Jewels of the Criminal Justice System. 

You can be forgiven if the Criminal Court Charge snuck up on you. The Lord Chancellor just squeezed it out in the dying days of this session of Parliament. For the legal geeks amongst you (collective noun is a “langhorn of lawyers”) the Criminal Court Charge was created by Section 54 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 which was commenced by statutory instrument No 778 that was laid on 19th March and brings the section into force as of 13th April 2015. 

Hot on its heels came SI No. 796 which gave us the full, terrible detail of the Charge itself. Likewise that was laid on 19th March. And the upshot of that is the figures being charged are not the subject of debate before the House. 

It would be difficult to pick the lowest moment of this Lord Chancellor’s dreadful reign. This is a serious contender. Let us make no bones about this – the Charges that he has elected to introduce amount to a tax on the right to trial. Where Thatcher had the poll tax, Cameron and Grayling have the Trial Tax. 

This piece of political, and I have searched long and hard for the right words for this but can do no better than, this piece of political bollocks (sorry Mum) is anti-democratic, discriminatory, unfair and utter….err….bollocks. 

Why anti-democratic? Well it is patently designed to force people to plead guilty based upon their ability to pay. A guilty plea in the mags will set you back £150 or £180. A trial will set you back £520 or £1,000, if you lose. So the advice given will deal with sentence, prospects of success and then the price comparison. “But I haven’t got a grand,” the client might say, “so I can’t risk it, I’m innocent but I just can’t afford it if I lose. I am going to have to plead.” Your good character is priceless, but unless you have MasterCard, the price of defending it is prohibitively expensive. 

Is this just scaremongering by me, a bleeding heart lawyer bathed in self-interest? No. This is the view of Richard Monkhouse, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association. That is the Magistrates’ Association. MAGISTRATES. Not exactly a well known hot bed of bleeding heart liberals. 

So that is the State, imposing a financial burden that may cause innocent people to plead guilty based upon their wealth. Terrifying. 

How on earth can I suggest that it is discriminatory? Well this is going to hit hard working people who want to get on a damn site more than the old lag who knows all the court staff by first name. Most recidivist offenders do not think through the consequences, most are not put off offending by the prospect of going to prison and most will not pay a penny of their Criminal Court Charges that will mount and mount. That’s why the Government estimate that by 2020 there will be one billion pounds of unpaid charges. 

So who will pay it? It will be paid by hard working people who want to get on. Are you a plumber caught speeding? Going too fast for a fixed penalty? That will be £150 on top of your fine, your points and the Prosecution costs. Are you a fifty five year old accountant involved in a dispute with your neighbour where tempers get frayed and you find yourself charged with using threatening or abusive words? Fight a trial to clear your name and lose? That’ll be £520. On top of your legal fees, because there is no way this Government will provide you with legal aid. And because these people are otherwise hard working, decent people, they will obey the order of the court and pay the price. So it is a Trial Tax that will fall heaviest on previously well behaved members of society. 

Unfair, you hear me cry. What’s it got to do with fairness? Everything. Absolutely everything. The justice system has to represent the best that society can be in terms of representing fairness. It has to represent better values than the values of those it often seeks to punish. And automatic, mandatory impositions of financial burdens without any consideration of ability to pay just offends against fairness. 

But it is not just that. It is so arbitrary. It is so wrong that the same has to be imposed, no matter what the circumstances. So old lady who reverses her car and injures a cyclist gets prosecuted for due care. Her trial takes 45 minutes. She loses. £520. So old lag is drunk and disorderly, struggles with the police officers on arrest and then damages the cell he is put in. His trial runs into a second day. He loses. £520. 

And it goes on. ABH trial in the magistrates that last two hours? £1,000. Murder trial in the Crown Court that lasts two MONTHS….. £1,200. That is 39 and 1/2 days extra court days for the bargain price of £200. And the murderer is likely to qualify for the provisions that allow the charge to be remitted after two years because (1) his earning capacity is somewhat reduced and (2) he may not pick up any further convictions whilst in prison. 

How about the unfairness to the man who, after trial by jury, is acquitted of the indictable only offence and only convicted of the either way alternative? An alternative he may well have been prepared to plead to in the Magistates. Any discretion there? No. None. He pays £1,200 for the privilege of being largely vindicated. 

And what of the false accuser? Should they not pay for their use of the court system upon acquittal? Or even just the witness that does not turn up so the case gets dropped. The witness that calls the police out, gives a statement and then just can’t be bothered. Why on earth should they not pay?

If all of the above does not satisfy you that it is utter bollocks then also consider this. The court charge will be creating potentially preferential debts that will impact upon confiscation proceedings. There is no provision for how the hearings to determine whether to remit the charge will work. Who is going to pay for that? How much is it going to cost to record, monitor and pursue the charges that have been imposed?  What is the Lord Chancellor even trying to achieve?

That last bit is easy. Just before the election he is trying to look tough. He is trying to say “look at me, making criminals pay.” It is utter political bollocks. His own department states that by 2020 it could raise £135 million annually but they will be owed £1 billion by that time. Even he does not believe the first bit. If he did, he would not have to cut legal aid further would he?

This is an ambitious politician using the justice system as his political plaything. Lots has been made of having a non-lawyer as Lord Chancellor. Lots is made as to whether Labour or Conservatives are to blame for that. But this is what you get when you allow politicians to play with basic concepts of justice. This is the result of this abhorrent Lord Chancellor caring not one jot for the precious system he swore to protect. 

I don’t know how any lawyer, of any discipline, of any political persuasion, could step inside a polling booth and put an X against any politician who does not decry this false Lord Chancellor. I do not know how any lawyer could vote for someone from the same political stable as the nakedly ambitious and wickedly reckless political animal that is Chris Grayling. 

I do not care who you eventually vote for. Just make sure it is a vote that consigns this Government to Opposition and then do everything you can to lobby the new administration to undo the damage done by this spiteful regime. Starting with the Trial Tax. 

 

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