Sometimes, the harm that a fool does lives after him. A wave of relief went around the legal profession when Chris Grayling, the first Lord Chancellor in centuries to hold the post without having any legal qualifications, was moved to a job where he can do less damage.
But the wheels of government turn slowly. Parliament passes legislation one year; another year, its effect is felt in the outside world. So it comes about that magistrates’ courts are only now having to cope with the impact of a mean, ill-planned, oppressive and regressive law pushed through Parliament by Mr Grayling.
The idea was to make criminals pay more of the cost of the justice system. That is a fine principle when applied to people who make money out of crime – drug dealers, bank robbers, fraudsters, city spivs, MPs who fiddle their expenses. But they are not the ones who have been ensnared in this latest wheeze, which is so inept and unjust that it is believed to have driven more than 50 magistrates to resign.
A woman from Kidderminster who stole a 75p pack of Mars bars when she had no income because her benefits had been stopped was fined £73, plus 75p in compensation, plus a £20 victim surcharge, plus £85 in prosecution costs, plus £150 in court charges – £328.75 in all, almost 440 times the value of the stolen food. A man who stole three bottles of baby milk from Sainsbury’s in Derby received a six-week community-service order – a penalty that would have seemed proportionate, until the extras were added in: a £60 victim surcharge, £85 in costs, and a £150 court fee.
The common feature is that £150 charge, which magistrates have no choice but to impose, even when faced with a trivial offender who is unable to pay. In Sunderland it was imposed on a man who had attempted suicide by throwing himself in front of an approaching car. He was charged with criminal damage to the car.
It gets worse. The charge applies to those who have pleaded guilty, saving the court’s time. Those who plead not guilty but are convicted risk being hit by a higher charge – up to £1,000 – in addition to any fine, compensation or contribution to prosecution costs. It is little wonder that the chair of the Magistrates Association, Richard Monkhouse, has warned that people who cannot afford to pay penalties of that magnitude may be intimidated into confessing to offences that they did not commit.
It is a long-standing and accepted practice that defendants who plead guilty are rewarded for not wasting the court’s time by being punished more lightly than those who are convicted of the same offence after pleading not guilty. The principle is that the penalty, appropriate to the crime and the defendant’s circumstances, is reduced in the case of a guilty plea.
Mr Grayling turned that on its head. Under his regime, there is a fixed penalty for pleading guilty, with a variable extra punishment for those who unsuccessfully protest their innocence, which takes no account of the gravity of the offence or the ability to pay. This goes against any common-sense idea of how justice should be dispensed. It is a poll tax for petty offenders.
The one source of hope in this sorry story is that the justice system is now out of Mr Grayling’s hands. His more enlightened successor, Michael Gove, should now abolish this appalling measure.Reuse content