Controversial criminal courts charge is to be scrapped

Justice Secretary Michael Gove has announced the controversial criminal charge is to be scrapped.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove has announced the controversial criminal charge is to be scrapped.

A controversial courts charge levied on criminals is to be scrapped within weeks, Justice Secretary Michael Gove confirmed today.

The fees, which can range from £150 to £1,200, will no longer apply from December 24, he said.

He also announced a review into the "entire structure and purpose" of court-ordered financial sanctions for offenders.

The criminal courts charge was introduced by Mr Gove's predecessor Chris Grayling during the coalition government to help towards the running of the courts system.

But it has provoked intense criticism, with more than 50 magistrates understood to have resigned in protest.

In August, the Howard League for Penal Reform used a North-East case as an example of the rules which it said penalise the poor.

A 26-year-old homeless man was ordered to pay £150 and a £15 victim surcharge by magistrates in South Shields after he stole a 99p can of Red Bull.

Mr Gove announced the scrapping of the charge, which is levied on anyone convicted of a crime, at a meeting of the Magistrates' Association Council in London.

He said: "When the magistracy has made its views on particular policies crystal clear I have been listening hard.

"Take the criminal courts charge. It was introduced for the best of reasons - to ensure that those who impose costs on the criminal justice system make a contribution to those costs wherever possible.

"If you've deliberately broken the law, if the taxpayer has to shell out to ensure justice is done, and if you have the means, then there can clearly be a case for the court imposing a financial penalty.

"But it has become clear that while the intention behind the policy was honourable, in reality that intent has fallen short."

Mr Gove stressed he had not taken the decision "in isolation from consideration of the whole range of penalties, fines and charges imposed in our courts".

Money is taken from offenders through fines, a victim surcharge, compensation orders, prosecution costs and the criminal courts charge.

The justice secretary said the array of sanctions and penalties is "complex and confusing".

He has asked his department to carry out a review into "the entire structure, and purpose, of court-ordered financial impositions for offenders, in order to bring greater simplicity and clarity to the system".

The inquiry will aim to give the judiciary, including magistrates, greater discretion in setting financial orders and make monetary penalties a more effective tool in the delivery of non-custodial sentences.

Mr Gove added: "My third hope is that we can properly - and fairly - ensure that money raised through financial penalties plays an appropriate - and sustainable - role in supporting taxpayers to meet the costs of running the courts."

An amending statutory instrument being laid in Parliament today means that as of Christmas Eve, the criminal courts charge will no longer be imposed.

Among those who have called for the charge to be scrapped was Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Vera Baird.

She said: "Justice is important and a tax that promoted fears that defendants were being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit to avoid charges was ludicrous - it had to go.

"In many cases, the charge was responsible for delaying the whole process; seriously inconveniencing people or sustaining the stress or trauma on victims, who we must put first.

"I am delighted Michael Gove has seen sense and that within weeks we'll see these charges gone for good.

"This isn't the end of the matter though. The courts take money from offenders in a number of ways, including fines, the victim surcharge, compensation orders, prosecution costs and the Criminal Courts Charge.

"It can be complex and confusing and I welcome a review so steps can be made to improve the process for all concerned."