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Ellie Butt @TheHowardLeague Ellie Butt is Policy Advisor at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Unfair criminal courts charge hits homeless people the hardest

Last week Thomas Dickinson, a 77 year old man from Derby with nowhere to live, appeared in court. He had been arrested and charged for taking a few groceries from a supermarket. He pleaded guilty to shoplifting. The magistrates hearing his case conditionally discharged him – meaning that he was free to go and no further action would be taken unless he committed another offence within a certain period of time. This was the sentence deemed appropriate for the crime.

However, Thomas was also told he had to pay £165 in charges, made up of a £15 victim surcharge and £150 criminal courts charge. I’m sure the magistrate imposing these charges knew that Thomas could not afford to pay them, but he had no choice. Since March 2015 every person who pleads or is found guilty in a court in England and Wales must pay a mandatory fee, called the criminal courts charge, of between £150 and £1200.

The Howard League is campaigning for a review of this charge, which in the five months it has been law has forced unaffordable and unfair debt onto thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable people all over the country. Other examples include:

  • A 26-year-old homeless man who stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge
  • A 30-year-old homeless woman was convicted in her absence of begging in a car park in Coventry, West Midlands. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge, a £30 fine and a £20 victim surcharge
  • A 44-year-old homeless man was jailed for 12 weeks and was ordered to pay a £180 criminal courts charge and an £80 victim surcharge for attempting to enter a supermarket in Derby as a “trespasser” with intent to steal on July 10

The criminal courts charge applies to every court appearance, including appeals and breach of licence conditions. Those without stable accommodation are far more likely to breach licence and supervision conditions than those with an address, often because they leave the unsuitable hostels or approved premises they are required to live in or “trespass” when trying to find a place to sleep for the night. There is a real risk that homeless people will accrue thousands of pounds in fines for administrative breaches of licence conditions.

If a trial is in the Crown Court, or a person is convicted after pleading not guilty, the charge is even higher. This puts huge pressure on people to plead guilty to offences they haven’t committed or forfeit appeals in order to limit the costs. Solicitors are beginning to report that clients are changing their pleas after the implications of the criminal courts charge are explained to them.

The Ministry of Justice knows that the charge is unaffordable for the majority of people who come before the courts, but is still planning to charge interest on the fees and is in the process of contracting  a private company to collect as much of the charge as possible. If a person is unable or unwilling to pay the charge, they could be sent to prison.

Unsurprisingly, many magistrates and judges are unhappy about the criminal courts charge. Several magistrates have resigned in protest. In one resignation letter an experienced magistrate who had just been forced to impose hundreds of pounds in financial penalties on unemployed young men who had committed very low level offences said that ‘[a]fter over 21 years as a magistrate, I cannot impose a sentence without fear. I am afraid these new court charges are going to destroy ordinary people’s conception of a fair British judicial system.’

The criminal courts charge illustrates how unfair our justice system has become. The consequences of homelessness and poverty are criminalised and huge financial penalties are imposed in addition to the sentence for the offence regardless of ability to pay. More and more people will be crammed into our already overcrowded prisons simply because they are too poor to pay court charges.

The Howard League is calling for an urgent review of the criminal courts charge. It is at best a poorly thought-through, rushed policy and at worst a cruel mechanism to further punish the poor and homeless. You can find out more and support our campaign here – http://www.howardleague.org/criminalcharge/