Tag Archives: criminal courts charge

Writing’s on the Wall

Lord Chancellors of recent vintage spent a lot of money on wallpaper. I imagine if Chris Grayling had decorated his office, Michael Gove would have stripped the paper off the walls by now. He would have probably burnt the curtains too  He has certainly changed most other things his predecessor has done. 

One significant change was made today. The Criminal Courts Charge survived a grand total of nine months. From the moment it was introduced it was condemned by anyone with an ounce of sense, an ounce of decency or an ounce of experience of the criminal justice system. 

At last sense has prevailed. Hey-ho the charge is dead…..or is it?

The Ministerial Statement announcing the change speaks of a review of all financial penalties in the Criminal Justice System. It praises the intention behind the Criminal Courts Charge but accepts it had problems in practice. The statement goes on to say:

“I am today laying in Parliament an amending statutory instrument which will mean that, as of 24 December, the criminal courts charge will no longer be imposed. Our review will consider alternative ways of ensuring that criminals pay their fair share.”

This would seem fairly unequivocal. The Charge “will no longer be imposed”. But then we look at the Statutory Instrument which has been drafted. It simply deletes the part of the Regulations which provides for the amounts to be imposed as the Criminal Courts Charge. It does not repeal the charge itself. In fact the sentencing court will, on strict interpretation, still have to impose the charge. There is just no value ascribed to the charge ordered. 

It is a fairly curious way of achieving the cancellation of the charge. It leaves the door well and truly open for the charge to be resurrected with a new and different scheme for calculating the amount involved. 

Now what of defendants being sentenced in the next three weeks? Judges have no discretion regarding the charge. The requirement to impose the charge survives even the 24th December date when the amendment comes into force. Between now and then the amounts are still there to be paid. So Judges will have to still order defendants to pay it. Even in its final days, this version of the charge is managing to bring the system into disrepute. Expect some farcical scenes and legal contortions as judges, lawyers and magistrates try to do justice despite the law. 

What is going to happen to the charges imposed and not paid? There has never been a scheme announced by which the remission of the charges would be regulated. Are they still lawful debts owed by the offender?

And what of those that have paid the charge in the last nine months? I do not know the figures but I would wager that the money raised from the charge will mainly have been paid by people convicted of motoring offences. A significant majority of whom would have paid their fair share towards the criminal justice system through the tax they have paid. Do they get the money back?

Or do they just have to take it on the chin? Like most other taxpayers who have been put to great expense by each of the follies constructed by Grayling. Taxpayers who paid for the secure college that never was. Taxpayers who paid to defend the judicial review of the prison book ban. Taxpayers who paid his ministerial wages so he could waste taxpayers’ money. 

FOC 

The Criminal Courts Charge is a bad and pointless thing. Everyone knows it, with possibly one exception in the form of C. Grayling MP, TB (Total Buffoon). The problem, it would seem, is that the MOJ budget has been worked out on the basis of the revenue that the Charge is supposed to raise. Until they can replace the income stream, the Charge has to stay. 

Now this is, of course, a total fiction. The Charge will not raise the amount the budget says it will. It is being imposed upon people who will never be able to afford to pay it. It is being imposed on people who are being imprisoned for decades. It is, in one case of mine recently, being imposed upon a man who will be deported before the Charge can even be remitted. The predicted “profit” does not seem to take into account how much administering the collection/remission/ignoring of the Charge will cost. This is budgetary hopeful thinking on a major scale. You may as well include the largesse of the Tooth Fairy in your next mortgage application.

Poor old Michael Gove still has to find away of defending the Charge to the public. Every time he passes Grayling in the corridors of power he must feel like sticking out a foot and sending him flying whilst shouting “Why do I have to look a total berk every week defending the claptrap you left me with?” Although he may be tempted to include a few more words of more base Anglo-Saxon heritage, and would be well justified in so doing. 

But for now, defend it he must. So, through gritted teeth, Gove recently said: “The criminal courts charge is generating revenue, which helps ensure that the taxpayer is not the first port of call for supporting the way in which our courts operate, but it is important that we balance all the criteria in making a judgment on the review of the charge.”

Now there may be some that think that the taxpayer should be the first port of call for supporting the way which our courts operate. The courts are a key part of our democratic process. It is part of what makes us all safe. Safe in so many ways. Safe from the criminals, safe from the abuse of power. It is exactly the sort of thing that the raising of tax revenue should pay for. At the very least tax revenue should pay for the courts before it pays for a big plane for the PM to use see his mates in Saudi Arabia. But that may just be me. 

Gove’s statement did, at least, get me thinking. What if he is right? What if the public should not foot the bill for certain parts of the democratic process? What if we could find other ways of raising money on the back of keeping civilisation civilised?

Perhaps Mr Gove should look a little closer to home. How about a House of Commons Waffle Charge? A £100 per minute charge levied on MPs who want to filibuster in order to frustrate the work of the House of Commons. So those great and dedicated public servants like Philip Davies, who spoke for 93 minutes to defeat a Bill that would have given carers free parking at hospitals, can put his hand in his pocket.  By all means he should be able to exercise his democratic right to defeat legislation having a long argument rather than a reasoned, winning one, but why should the public pay? Implement my scheme and the public could have pocketed £7800 profit. And we could have made £3700 when he did it again to thwart compulsory first aid training for schoolkids.

Why stop there? At a tenner each time that the Prime Minister fails to answer a question we could all have a private jet by next Easter. Peers getting expenses for tipping up to the House of Lords? Why should the taxpayer be the first port of call for supporting the way our unelected second house operates? 

And may be the cost of every harebrained Government scheme that ends up scrapped should come out of the pension pots of those involved. The £6 million wasted on the ridiculous secure college for young offenders would make a heck of a dent in the pensions of Grayling and a few senior civil servants. Why should the public be the first port of call to support their incompetence? 

So Mr Gove, do the right thing when it comes to the injustice of the Criminal Courts Charge. Do not allow this ridiculous state of affairs to be governed by a fiction of a budget. And if you need to make up the shortfall, pop ten pence in a swearbox every time you think of a bad word in connection with Mr Grayling. “F.O. Chris!” You’ll soon be quids in. 

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. 

 

The Laguna Lawyer

A supermarket Car Park in Innercity Town, Votershire. In a quiet and secluded corner of the car park John Everyman approaches the rear passenger door of a vehicle. He opens the door and looks in.

JE: Mr Measures?

AM: That’s me. Alfred Measures, at your service. Alf to my friends. Come in and shut the door, the breeze will mess up my files. 

Everyman gets into the backseat of the car alongside Alf Measures and closes the door. 

JE: Well, I never thought that, if I needed a lawyer, I would have to meet them in the back of their car. Its a bit less glamourous than it looks on the telly.

AM: Think of me a bit like Matthew McConaughey. 

JE: But you’re bald and fat. 

AM: Well, I did say a bit. But I meant like that film, The Lincoln Lawyer? The film about the lawyer that has his office in his car to keep costs down? Well that’s me. 

JE: But this is a Renault Laguna….

AM: You are a “take everything literally kind” of guy aren’t you? Anyway, Svetlana tells me you need a lawyer so here I am.  

JE: Did she tell you why?

AM: Not exactly. She can be a bit difficult to understand sometimes.

JE: I noticed that. I wasn’t sure she got everything I had to say and well, I couldn’t really follow what she said, other than to meet you here.

AM: We have to make allowances for her. Ukrainian you see? Her English isn’t very good. And she isn’t really a receptionist. She just has a mobile and a diary to book the appointments. Cheap though. She juggles it with her main job.

JE: What’s her main job?

AM: Court interpreter. That’s how we met. She was at court, doing the interpreting in a gangland killing and was having a bit of difficulty making herself understood when paying for a coffee so I stepped in, helped her out and we got talking. After a fashion. A mixture of hand signals, smiling and a few words of Russian I picked up once all helped. Was able to offer her the job. 

JE: Right. Anyway,  I am here to get advice from you, not chat about your linguistically challenged receptionist. As I tried to tell her, I have been charged with a section 47 and am due my first appearance at the mags. I need your advice. I have never been in this situation before. 

AM: You’re in the right place. “ABH Alfie” they call me. I’m your man. 

JE: Brilliant. 

AM: Oh yes. Here’s my business card. Reccomend me to all your friends. No matter what it is. They also call me “Ancill Alfie”, “Affidavit Alfie”, “Adverse Possession Alfie” and even, for a hefty fee, “Admiralty Alfie”. No area of law left unturned by me. So pop along and tell all your friends, you got top notch legal advice from Measures. 

JE: You haven’t given it to me yet. Your advice. You’ve not given me any. 

AM: Good point. Right well let’s first of all talk about venue….

JE: Its a Tesco’s car park. 

AM: There you go again, getting all literal on me. Although there is an irony in that. When the Government introduced the new legal aid regime we all feared Tesco Law would move in and pile ’em high and sell him cheap, but at 1% profit even they couldn’t do it. So it is left to the likes of me and the trusty Renault, doing the rounds like a Lone Ranger of the Law. “Mobile Measures” they call me…. 

JE: You were telling me about venue.

AM: Yes, sorry, well section 47 ABH is an either way offence so you can either choose to have the case dealt with in the magistrate’s or you can elect a trial by jury. 

JE: And because I have got legal aid, that trial is free?

AM: Very astute of you, if I may so. Yes, because you are on legal aid, I do the case virtually for free…..

JE: No, I meant it doesn’t cost me anything. I lost my job, you see? Got made redundant. And I have maintenance to pay for my daughter. I have no money. 

AM: Right. Well I am technically free. But if you get convicted, you have to pay a Criminal Courts Charge.

JE: Well I guess I can understand that. I’ll have to pay the proseuction’s costs. But the court take into account your personal circumstances when assessing that sort of thing, don’t they? So if I lose, the Judge decides how much I have to pay? Like they do with fines and compensation? I can understand that, its fair enough. 

AM: Yes. And that’s not what it is. And a little bit of no as well. 

JE: I’m sorry? You’re sounding a bit like Svetlana now….

AM: Yes you do have to pay the prosecution costs. But that’s not what this is. This is the charge you pay for the privilege of using the courtroom to test the evidence against you. This you have to pay as well as the costs. And a little bit of no as well because, although you are right about the Judge taking into account your ability to pay the other financial matters, not this one. These are set fees. 

JE: How much?

AM: Well if you have a mags trial, its a £1,000 and if you have a Crown Court trial its £1,200. Its much cheaper if you plead though. 

JE: But that’s a tax on my right to a trial….

AM: Yes it is. Thems are the rules.

JE: But what about that Magna Carta thingy? To no man will we deny justice or sell justice? Well I can’t bloody well afford to buy my justice, in case I lose. 

AM: No need to swear at me. I don’t make the rules, I just apply the rules. “Rules Reggie” they call me.

JE: No they don’t. Your names Alf. 

AM: Middle name, matey, Reggie is my middle name. 

JE: I just can’t afford that risk. I could never pay a grand. Not even if they gave me years and years to pay. I only get £72 a week as it is. I couldn’t afford to pay that off if they gave me more than two years to pay. 

AM: I know that. I am not one of these ivory towers lawyers. “Real World Reggie” they call me. Everyman thinks of interrupting but decides against it. But it’s not only me who knows that. The Government do too. If you haven’t been able to pay it, after two years you can go back before the Magistrates and ask for it to be remitted. 

JE: Who pays for that?

AM: Good question. 

JE: What’s the answer?

AM: Haven’t got a clue. 

JE: We’ll just have to fight it and if we lose, we’ll appeal. If I am over a grand down, it can’t hurt to try to overturn a miscarriage of justice. 

AM: When it comes to appeals, I would have to pass you on to our Appeals Department. This is strictly first instance stuff in this department.

JE: Right, well how do I speak to someone in the Appeals Department.

Alf Measures nods towards the front seats of the car. Everyman looks quizzically at him. Measures gets out and walks to the front of the car, opens the door and sits in the driver’s seat. Measures nods at the passenger seat.

JE: You’ve got to be kidding….

Measures clears his throat and nods once again at the seat next to him. Reluctantly Everyman exits the rear of the car and joins the lawyer in the front.

AM: Good afternoon, Mr Everyman, you have been referred to me by our Crown Court department, my name is Alf Measures, aka “Appellate Alfie”…..

JE: Oh for Christ’s sake…..

AM: Now what can I help you with?

JE: As I have just explained, if I lose my trial it will be a miscarriage of justice and I want to appeal. Plus I will be over a grand down, so will need your help.

AM: Well the first stage would be I would look at your case and then give you written advice about whether I thought you had good grounds of appeal. They call me “Advis……” Everyman silences the lawyer with a look that shows he is ,at the very least ,capable of acts of violence. And if I advise you have good grounds then I draft them and send them off to London. 

JE: And is all that free?

AM: Oh yes, I don’t get paid a penny for all that work…..

JE:  Not for you, for me…..

AM: If the first Judge that looks at it down in London doesn’t agree with  me and refuses permission to appeal, that’ll cost you £150. 

JE: What? Even if I am just following your advice?

AM: Oh yes, thems are the rules, I don’t make the rules, I just…… All it takes is a glance and the lawyer trails off in mid sentence. 

JE: But if I get permission then I can appeal without worrying about the cost right? I mean at that stage you’ve advised me its the right thing to do and I am kind of guessing that the first Judge must think it is at least arguable so I guess they can’t try to blame me if I lose the actual appeal. 

AM: You’d think so wouldn’t you? But no. That’s gonna cost you £200. Its a bit like charging patients for NHS treatments that don’t actually cure them.

JE: That’s a very good way of putting it.

AM: There is a reason they call me “Analogy Alfie”……

JE: Right, that’s it, I’m off.  You’re mental.

Everyman exits the car and slams the door. As he walks off, the lawyer winds down the window and shouts after him….

AM: BUT THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. THE SUPERMARKET CAR PARK. THE BATTERED OLD CAR. THEY DON’T CALL ME “METAPHOR MEASURES” FOR NOTHING YOU KNOW? GIVE SVETLANA A CALL. WE CAN SET UP A MEETING WITH OUR ADVOCATE…….