Criminal courts charge: Ministers prepare to retreat from controversial 'tax on justice'

Exclusive: Michael Gove oversees policy review following Independent campaign

Ministers are preparing to climb down and fundamentally reform the Government’s controversial “tax on justice” just six months after it was introduced, The Independent understands.

The Ministry of Justice has been inundated with complaints from magistrates, lawyers and campaigners about the £150 flat fee court charge which is not means tested and can rise to £1,000 if someone pleads not guilty but loses their case in court.

They have warned that some defendants are being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit to avoid the fee, while the charge adds extra hardship for those whose crimes were motivated by poverty.

Now The Independent understands that the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, is overseeing a review of how the court charges are operating with a view to either reforming them or scrapping them entirely. Pressure to address the unpopular charge has increased as peers in the House of Lords condemned the policy as “Ryanair justice”. After debating the motion of regret, peers voted by 132 votes to 100 to oppose the court charges, and Mr Gove will now have to give a formal response. 

One option being looked at would be to means test the fee while another plan is to allow magistrates discretion to waive the charge in certain circumstances.

However no change is expected to be announced until after the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review at the end of November. Before it was launched in April the Ministry of Justice estimated that the charge would yield between £65m and £85m a year. 

So far estimates suggest that less than £300,000 has been collected of £5m charges imposed. The Treasury is likely to insist that the shortfall will have to be made up from other budgets as part of Mr Gove’s wider criminal justice reforms.

But Whitehall sources suggest that the Ministry of Justice is keen to find a way to reform the charge which it accepts is counter-productive to Mr Gove’s wider reform agenda. “The difficulty is that the court charges are written into the department’s budget so any change will need to be tied into the Comprehensive Spending Review,” they said. 

“The question is whether they can scrap the charge entirely or reform it so that those who earn more pay more while giving magistrates discretion to waive the charge in certain circumstances. Nothing has been decided but everyone accepts that something needs to be done.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “This is speculation and nothing has changed.” The Ministry of Justice’s hand in negotiations with the Treasury has been strengthened by David Cameron’s endorsement of Mr Gove’s strategy for criminal justice reform in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference. Mr Gove has already suggested that he wants to adopt a successful scheme pioneered in the United States to set up special courts designed to deal with criminals’ underlying problems such as drug use, family breakdown or mental health issues.

There is recognition that piling debt on to people who already have very little money can be counter-productive and could even lead them to commit further crimes. The potential for the charge to “trigger more crime” is one of the issues so far highlighted by judges in sentencing.

Lord Beecham, who tabled the debate in the House of Lords, said: “Judicial discretion is being displaced by what one might call Ryanair justice, with significant add-ons, often disproportionate to the basic financial penalty.”

Lord Beecham opened his speech with examples of the charge being applied to impoverished defendants. Among these was a woman undergoing benefit sanctions who had not eaten for two days when she stole Mars bars worth 75p from a shop in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. She pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a criminal charge of £150. Another was a man in Newbury, West Berkshire, who lives in a tent and stole a £2.99 bottle of wine from a supermarket and was subjected to the same charge.

Lord Beecham added: “These cases, and many like them, proceed from the criminal courts charge regulations, which amongst the many dubious legacies bequeathed to Michael Gove by his predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, rank as one of the most misconceived.” 

The chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, Richard Monkhouse, said: “Our members welcome any indication that the mandatory charge is being looked at to address the deep concerns we have about its impact. If means testing is on the cards, that’s great and you will hear a chorus of relief from magistrates nationwide, but that will become a deafening crescendo of gratitude if Mr Gove delivers judicial discretion over its application. We very much hope he will.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was concerned by the idea of magistrates being given greater discretion. She said: “That would be disastrous since it would leave it up to their idiosyncratic decision-making. The best thing would be to suspend it pending review. 

“It would be unfortunate if Gove responds with reform because it will still be a mess and it will store up problems for the future. A suspension would mean he could look at the courts and the fine system in a more fundamental way. ”

Commenting on the prospect of means testing for the charge, Ms Crook said: “Almost everyone going through the magistrates’ court can’t afford to pay, so the people hit would be middle-class motorists, which Gove might find uncomfortable.”

Timeline: Court fee campaign

14 October Now ditch the courts charge, Mr Gove

Mounting pressure for Michael Gove to scrap court charges, as The Independent reveals the penalties are causing crime victims and the CPS to miss out on compensation.

28 SeptemberCourt fees are breach of human rights

A leading criminologist brands the charge “very unfair and unpleasant”.

25 September“Tax on justice” means guilty walk free’

Magistrates are giving petty criminals absolute discharges to avoid imposing the fees and figures suggest that less than £300,000 has been collected of the £5m charges imposed.

11 September“Rapacious” US bailiff chosen to chase unpaid court fines’

Concentrix, a US outsourcing giant criticised for its controversial pursuit of benefit recipients, is set to become the Ministry of Justice’s debt collector.

9 September ‘Mass resignations over punitive court fees’

More than 50 magistrates have quit the bench in just a few weeks, as a judge warns the charge could push poor into reoffending.

22 August ‘Priced out of justice

Innocent people are being encouraged to plead guilty to avoid the charges, The Independent reveals.