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Bar Council slams court fees

The chairman of the Bar Council has warned that defendants are being “incentivised” by government-imposed charges to plead guilty rather than risk a costly fight in the crown court.

Alistair MacDonald QC has called on peers to reject the procedure that requires those who plead guilty at a magistrates court to pay £150 but forces those convicted at a crown court to hand over £1,200.

In October, Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said that steep rises in criminal and civil court fees were putting access to justice beyond the reach of most people and “imperilling a core principle of Magna Carta.”

The charge, which came into force in April, was introduced by the previous Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. More than 50 magistrates in England and Wales have already resigned in protest at the charge, according to the Magistrates Association.

Neither judges nor magistrates have any discretion in applying the charge which must be paid by all those who plead guilty or are convicted, on top of any prosecution costs, victims’ surcharge or fines.

In his warning, Macdonald claimed that the charge provided a false incentive. “The financial situation of a defendant cannot be ignored,” he said. “Faced with the prospect of a court charge that could be significantly higher than the penalties for a particular offence, defendants who are innocent may have little choice but to plead guilty simply to avoid the financial risk of having to pay a hefty court fee if they are convicted after a trial.

“No one should be influenced by the extent of a court charge in making their decision about whether to plead guilty or have a trial.” He added: “A parent who steals food as a last resort to feed their children when there has been a glitch in their benefit payments would face exactly the same court charge as a member of a professional shoplifting gang. That cannot be right and the extent of the unfairness of these charges is demonstrated by the fact that 50 magistrates have resigned rather [than] face the prospect of having to order defendants to pay these charges. In at least one case, the magistrate has felt so strongly about the injustice of a charge that he paid the fee out of his own pocket,” the Bar Council chairman said.

Link: The Bar Council