1.On 21 July 2015, shortly after our establishment at the start of this Parliament, we announced an inquiry into the impact or likely impact of a range of changes to the regime of fees and charges introduced or proposed by the Government within the courts and tribunals system. Most of these changes relate to fees for users of civil courts or tribunals. The exception is the criminal courts charge, imposed on those convicted of a criminal offence in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. In relation to that charge, the terms of reference of our inquiry asked
What have been the effects on defendants of the introduction of the criminal courts charge? Has the criminal courts charge been set at a reasonable and proportionate level? Is the imposition and collection of the charge practicable and, if not, how could that be rectified?
2.In their submissions to our inquiry, a number of organisations and individuals dealt solely with the discrete topic of the criminal courts charge. The genesis and implementation of the charge have proved controversial, and there have been media reports that the new Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has been considering options for reforming or abolishing the charge. All the witnesses to our inquiry whose submissions dealt with the charge, with the exception of the Ministry of Justice itself, were critical of it. The charge has also been criticised in the House of Lords: a motion of regret was agreed there on 14 October 2015, expressing concerns that the charge undermined the principle of judicial discretion, created an artificial inducement for defendants to plead guilty, and was brought in through regulations laid at a time that severely limited Parliamentary oversight. There is also an e-petition, with over 1,500 signatures, on the Parliament website calling for the charge to be reviewed immediately.
3.For all these reasons we decided to expedite our consideration of the effects of the charge with the aim of reporting our conclusions and recommendations at an early stage. We therefore held our first oral evidence session in this inquiry specifically on the charge, hearing on 27 October from a panel of representatives of criminal justice NGOs and then from the Magistrates’ Association. Following that session we offered the Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid, Shailesh Vara MP, the opportunity to put the Government’s side of the case at an oral evidence session the following week, but he declined the offer. We were disappointed that he did not take up our offer. Instead we put some questions arising from the 27 October oral evidence session to Mr Vara for a written response to supplement the Ministry’s original memorandum of evidence to the inquiry. We are grateful to all those who submitted written and oral evidence to us on the criminal courts charge.
4.So soon after the introduction of the charge there is considerable anecdotal evidence about its impact but a dearth of robust statistical evidence. Anecdotal evidence, especially if it comes from many different sources and tends to demonstrate similar trends, can of course be of considerable value. We have done our best to sift and weigh information presented to us and to distinguish between identifiable impacts of the charge and unsupported assertions about that impact.
1 See e.g. : The Independent, 15 October 2015; accessed on 5 November 2015
2 The text of the motion agreed to was “That this House regrets that the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (Criminal Courts Charge) Regulations 2015 undermine the principle of judicial discretion, and add an artificial inducement to plead guilty; and further regrets that the Regulations were laid at a time that severely limited Parliamentary oversight, as well as making claims for savings that cannot be substantiated (SI 2015/796)”.
3 ; 1,517 signatures when accessed on 5 November 2015
4 Phil Bowen, Centre for Justice Innovation, Frances Crook, Howard League for Penal Reform, Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice, and Ben Summerskill, Criminal Justice Alliance
Prepared 18 November 2015