What’s the Point?

You cannot deter people from committing crime. This is, I know, a BIG statement. It is also entirely unscientific, has no basis in research whatsoever and is probably wrong.  

Yet this is what a look around life tells me. Everyone knows that motoring offences carry points on your licence, a fine, increased insurance premiums and the possibility of a driving ban. Yet most drivers offend, whether it is gambling on the drive home after two pints or the almost ubiquitous speeding, the prospect of punishment does little to deter people who would otherwise describe themselves as law abiding. 

Burglars know that prison is the likely consequence of offending. Sentences for burglary seem to steadily rise. Yet people still burgle. They are prepared to gamble on the prospects of getting caught rather than on the consequence of getting caught. Which may be a gamble that is as simple as odds and evens, if stories about Scence of Crime Officers being deployed dependent on house number are right. If you want to deter burglars, do not boost sentences, boost clear up rates. 

And then you have those who are desperate. Drug users, who knew that drugs were bad for them (and before you tut and get all “they knew the risks and are the author of their own misfortune” you should put out your cigarette, put down your pint and leave that diabetes inducing doughnut alone) and knew that they were illegal offend because they see no other way. It is an offence committed entirely in the moment, thinking little of the consequences and thinking only of the need they have. Replace drugs with poverty and the drivers for crime are often the same. 

This is not to say that punishment is wrong and has no place in the Criminal Justice System. Clearly actions have consequences and a democratic society requires proportionate punishment for those that transgress our laws. The key word there being proportionate. And that brings me to the Criminal Courts Charge. 

From time to time in my life at the Bar I have witnessed some pretty daft pieces of legislation. I have experienced sentencing changes that were a nonsense. I have seen the folly of improbably harsh punishments such as IPP. It is difficult, however, to recall anything quite as arbitrarily unfair and impractical as the Charge. 

It is not as if the politicians had no clue as to how daft this was. I have lost count of the number of times Judges explained the Victime Surcharge with a degree of bemused exasperation to men and women who had little prospect of paying the hundred and odd pounds that now fell due. And, on occasion, have seen a Judge fall somewhere in between embarrassment and mirth in declaring that the Surcharge bites on someone they had just sentenced to 24 years in custody. 

But the Charge takes the biscuit. It wins the prize for political stupidity. 

Let me give you an example. I saw a man being sentenced last week. He was a recidivist, without doubt one of those men who has existed throughout time. A man for whom mental health difficulties, personality disorders, circumstance and sheer unpleasantness meld together to fix him firmly as one of society’s wrong-uns. 

He was being sentenced for a miscellany of relatively minor offences. One of them included a Bail Act offence. He had, during the currency of the proceedings, been bailed “within the precincts of the court”. Being the man that he is he failed to heed the terms of that prohibition. He wandered out of the building, he failed to return on time and proceedings were delayed until he graced the court with his presence (albeit that he did come back the same day, just late).

This falls somewhere at the lower end of Bail Act offences. It undermines the system and needs punishment. So the Judge imposed some relatively short custodial sentences and marked the Bail Act offence with two weeks imprisonment to run consecutively.

Then came the kicker. The hearing that he had wandered off from had taken place on 14th April. Which meant he qualified for the Criminal Court Charge. A whopping £900. 

I have no words that can accurately describe the look on the Judicial face when this was brought to the Judge’s attention. The one thing I can say is that the look was not in the least bit judicial. You could read in the Judge’s dark demeanour that he did not like having his hands tied by the imposition of a swingeing financial penalty outwith his discretion. You could see that the Judge understood that there was no prospect of this man ever paying this sum, unless he committed more crime in order to pay it. 

The taxpayer is well served by the work of the courts. A democratic society will never rid itself of crime and needs crime to be punished. But society is badly served by something as pointless and arbitrary as the Charge.

Would the defendant in my example have obeyed the Judge’s order to remain because he knew he faced a £900 Charge? Nope. Prison did not deter him. He just is not built that way. Is the taxpayer ever going to get £900 from him to pay for the part of the proceedings related to the Bail Act Offence? Not a chance of it. Has the imposition of this Charge led to a layer of administrative cost in recording the Charge, monitoring its non-payment and compiling statistical tables related to its income generating performance? Absolutely. The taxpayer will end up paying more in relation to this offender because of the Charge. Admittedly only a few pounds more, but what a waste of resources. 

As an aside, had this man leapt onto the bench and murdered the Judge on the 14th April and subsequently pleaded guilty his Charge then would have been……exactly the same. £900. Nothing brings the court system into greater disrepute than something which causes it to descend into farce. 

That the punishment should fit the crime is an expression of an innate truth. The Charge is an expression of a policitian’s inane folly. If the Charge has to remain a feature of the legal landscape make it discretionary. Better still, scrap it all together. 

4 thoughts on “What’s the Point?

  1. James O'Neil

    I have made this comment before, but it seems to me that this intrusion by the administration into the working of the judiciary is as unconstitutional as it is unacceptable. Has no one thought to have it judicially reviewed on the ground that it is ultra vires? And the standard response of the MoJ, that “those who use our courts” (I think that is the phrase used) should be expected to pay, rather than the cost being met by the taxpayer, is crass and an insult to the intelligence of the taxpayer. (Do the persons concerned choose to use the courts? They’d probably rather not bother doing so.)

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  2. thebungblog

    The MoJ rationale seems to be, “if you litigate a criminal case unsuccessfully, then you must pay.”

    Well that’s fine, just as long as a prosecutor has to pay the same charge on acquittal

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  3. Francis FitzGibbon QC

    Big problem with ‘deterrence’: how to determine how many people have not committed a crime because they fear the punishment? It’s impossible to measure the success of deterrent sentences. The Grayling charge is utterly daft.

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  4. Pingback: What’s the Point? | Sydney – Melbourne – Brisbane – Wollongong – Newcastle

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