The justice secretary, Michael Gove, has scrapped the mandatory criminal courts charge after more than 100 magistrates resigned in protest.
The abrupt U-turn ditches a money-raising scheme introduced by the previous justice secretary, Chris Grayling, that only came into force in April this year. Imposition of the criminal courts charge is due to end on Christmas Eve.
The swift decision implies that early returns from the criminal courts charge did not deliver the anticipated income of up to £135m a year that Grayling’s officials initially promised.
Gove made the announcement in an address to the annual meeting of the Magistrates Association in central London. “The basic principle behind the policy – that those who have broken the law should bear some of the costs of running the criminal courts – is right,” Gove said.
“However, as the justice select committee set out in its recent report, there have been concerns raised about how this has worked in practice.”
“Whenever I have had the opportunity to talk to magistrates over the last six months, the criminal courts charge has been raised and in almost every case it has been criticised.”
Critics said the criminal courts charge – ranging from £150 up to £1,200 – was unlikely to be collected in many cases and created a perverse incentive for the innocent to plead guilty.
The mandatory charge was levied on any defendant who pleaded guilty or was convicted, on top of the victims’ surcharge, prosecution costs and fines. It started at £150 for those admitting guilt at magistrates court, rising to £1,200 for those found guilty at crown court – creating a financial disincentive to risk the uncertainty of a jury trial.
Malcolm Richardson, the Magistrates Association national chairman, is quoted as saying: “In all my years on the bench, I’ve never seen something strike so hard at the heart of justice.
“Although we have lost many experienced magistrates, there will be an enormous sense of relief across the criminal justice system.”
Gove’s overturning of Grayling’s initiative is the latest in a series of policy reversals. The former justice secretary’s plan for a secure college for young offenders, a ban on books for prisoners, outsourcing the enforcement of court fines and a prisons training contract with Saudi Arabia have all been scrapped.
Ben Summerskill, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance said: “We’re delighted at the government’s decision. Introducing a charge which created an incentive to plead guilty to a crime someone hadn’t committed wasn’t justice, it was nonsense on stilts.”
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