In this report we consider the effects on the criminal justice system which have arisen following the introduction of the criminal courts charge in April 2015. Given concerns expressed specifically about the charge in written evidence to our wider inquiry into a range of courts and tribunals fees and charges, we decided to produce an early and separate report on the charge. We acknowledge that so soon after the introduction of the charge there is a dearth of robust statistical evidence about its impact, but we consider that there is sufficient anecdotal and other evidence to enable conclusions to be drawn.
We explain in this report the background to the introduction of the criminal courts charge and the issues of principle concerning the charge. We also examine the consequences arising from the mandatory nature of the charge: courts have no option but to impose it, and to impose it at a fixed amount depending on where the case is heard and whether the defendant has pleaded guilty or not guilty, on those convicted of a criminal offence.
Evidence we received expressed scepticism about the collectability of the charge and thus whether the charge would generate the revenues projected by the Government in its impact assessment, especially considering the likely costs of enforcement. We also received evidence that the charge was affecting the behaviour of defendants and sentencers in undesirable ways. A number of witnesses to our inquiry were concerned that defendants might feel under pressure to plead guilty even when they weren’t in order to avoid the higher charge on conviction for those who pleaded not guilty. Others argued that sentencers were altering their orders for costs and compensation in order to offset the increase in the total financial burden imposed on a defendant, at the expense of victims and the Crown Prosecution Service.
We have been persuaded by the evidence we received that there are a number of issues of serious concern arising from the charge as currently framed, and we have grave misgivings about it. In particular we express concern about: the levels of the charge being grossly disproportionate to the means of many offenders and the gravity of the offences in relation to which it has been imposed; the lack of discretion enjoyed by sentencers on whether to impose the charge and if so at what level; the capacity of the charge to raise the revenue projected by the Government and the effect of levels of non-payment on respect for the legal process; the creation of perverse incentives affecting defendant and sentencer behaviour; and the detrimental impact on victims and the Crown Prosecution Service from sentencers reducing awards of compensation and prosecution costs.
Our principal recommendation, in light of the evidence we have received and the grave misgivings about the operation of the charge which that evidence has prompted, is that legislation to repeal the charge should be brought forward by the Government. Should the Government be unwilling to bring forward proposals to abolish or radically reduce the levels of the criminal courts charge, we recommend, as an irreducible minimum, that a double discretion should be accorded to sentencers, first, to decide whether to impose a criminal courts charge and then, secondly, to decide upon the amount of the charge in accordance with the circumstances of individual cases.
Prepared 18 November 2015