The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduced changes to the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 to provide for a new ‘Criminal Courts Charges’. A Statutory Instrument laid under the Prosecution of Offences Act on 23 March 2015 in the dying days of the current Parliament is due to come into force on 13 April 2015.
These new charges are being introduced to force adult offenders to contribute directly towards the cost of running the country’s courts. ‘Courts costs’ refer to the costs of providing the judiciary and the rest of the system of courts, but does not include defence or prosecution costs.
The charges apply in addition to any compensation order, legal costs, fines and/or Victim Surcharge imposed on the offender, therefore placing a greater financial burden on offenders. The existing HMCTS debt collection process will be used, which is already in place for collecting fines and compensation payments. The charge can be paid by instalment and agreement can be reached with the fines officer so that payments are made at a rate that the offender can afford. However, these charges are not means tested and are applicable to all those who are convicted in either the Magistrates or Crown court.
There are limited circumstances in which the charges do not apply, such as where a person is given an absolute discharge or a court order for hospital admission under the Mental Health Act 1983.
The charges range from £150 for a conviction following a guilty plea in the Magistrates’ Court for a summary offence to £1,200 for a conviction following a trial on indictment in the Crown Court. Arguably, the most significant charge relates to either way offences. Either-way offences are those which can be heard in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court; these include offences such as shop lifting, certain types of assault and racially aggravated offences. The criminal charge is £1,000 for a conviction in the Magistrates’ Court following a trial of an offence that is triable either-way. Were the offender to plead guilty to the triable either-way offence in the Magistrates’ Court, the charge would be considerably lower, at £180.
These charges have been introduced with very little consultation and no Parliamentary debate. There are concerns about innocent people being pressurised into pleading guilty in order to avoid significantly higher charges in the event of a conviction. In addition, default in paying the charges due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect could lead to the last resort sanction of ordering the offender to serve a term of imprisonment as well as charging interest on any outstanding amount. The table setting out the charges can be found here.