Courts charge leaves victims waiting for justice, says former Solicitor General

Exclusive: Vera Baird warns how the 'tax on justice' is undermining efforts to speed up judicial processes

Chris Green,Emily Dugan
Wednesday 21 October 2015 21:43
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Vera Baird claims cases of serial offenders are being bunched together to avoid fees
Vera Baird claims cases of serial offenders are being bunched together to avoid fees

The Government’s controversial courts charge is causing major delays and leaving victims waiting for justice, a former Solicitor General has said.

Vera Baird, now Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, said serial offenders’ cases are being bunched together to avoid them paying the Criminal Courts Charge multiple times.

The practice means the charge is now inadvertently undermining another government push to speed up justice in the magistrates courts.

Ms Baird’s comments come after the UK’s most senior female judge raised concerns about the controversial levy, saying that any policy which places pressure on defendants to plead guilty should be “treated with suspicion”.

The Independent has campaigned for the charge to be scrapped and revealed last week that ministers are preparing to climb down and fundamentally reform the policy. The charge has been described as a “tax on justice”and prompted fears that defendants are being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit to avoid the fee.

Ms Baird, who was Solicitor General in Tony Blair’s Government, said that local Crown Prosecution Service, police and solicitors in Northumbria had all confirmed to her that the practice of delaying cases to avoid repeat payments of the mandatory Criminal Courts Charge was commonplace. “You get irregular people who are arrested fairly frequently, perhaps a vagrant person or a minor shoplifter, and they would have two or three cases pending in the court at any one time,” she said.

In a worst case you could be seriously inconveniencing people or sustaining the stress or trauma on victims

&#13; <p>Vera Baird</p>&#13;

“To avoid three Criminal Courts Charges their solicitor will apply to adjourn each case until the last, so that they only get one charge for turning up and pleading guilty. The magistrates are incredibly sympathetic because they don’t like the charge.”

She added: “It’s a poor position for the public who may be waiting on the case. In a worst case you could be seriously inconveniencing people or sustaining the stress or trauma on victims waiting for the case to be heard.”

This year the Government introduced the Transforming Summary Justice initiative, which was intended to speed cases through the magistrates courts and encourage quick guilty pleas at first hearings.

Baroness Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, suggested earlier this week that the Government and Parliament “may not fully understand how important access to justice is to the maintenance of the rule of law”, citing the recent introduction of the £150 compulsory charge for criminal court defendants.

In a speech to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta delivered in London on Monday, Baroness Hale said: “If there is a risk of arbitrary and unjust punishment, what incentive is there to obey the law? In this connection, therefore, it is important to scrutinise any incentive to persons accused of crime to admit their guilt to police officers, or to plead guilty in court, in order to ensure that they do not place improper or unfair pressure on the innocent. An example is the recently introduced Criminal Court Charge, levied on those who are convicted after having pleaded not guilty.”

The Ministry of Justice pointed out that the listing of court cases and the management of hearings is a matter for the judiciary. A spokesman added: “It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them. The introduction of this charge makes it possible to recover some of the costs of the criminal courts from these offenders, therefore reducing the burden on taxpayers.

“Instalment payments can be set up if a defendant’s means do not allow prompt payment in full.”

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