Are court charges setting offenders up to fail?
The dreaded criminal courts charge has been abolished, but courts are still left with a bewildering array of charges to impose. Most of those convicted in magistrates’ courts have to pay a victim surcharge, compensation to the victim and a contribution to prosecution costs. Many also have to pay a fine. These four payments all have different purposes, but they are all added up to be paid at once or, more usually, in instalments. I wonder how many defendants understand what each payments is for?
The government faces huge problems collecting these charges and fines. They are owed millions of pounds in unpaid fines and end up using bailiffs to try to recover some of the money. Is part of the problem that the charges are too high? This week Lord Beecham suggested that the collection system for the victim surcharge, which has recently been increased by more than inflation, is “utterly ridiculous”. It is meant to fund services for victims. Those who leave custody are now expected to pay £115 victim surcharge within two weeks of release, but prisoners are only given £45 on leaving and often have to wait 6 weeks for benefits to come through. A magistrate complained to Lord Beecham : “We are setting these people up to fail. We have never fined nor charged prosecution costs for defendants going into custody so that when they leave they will have a clean slate, so why are they doing this, and [increasing it]?” The risk is that released prisoners may return to crime, simply to clear the debt.
The victim surcharge is also imposed on children. Magistrates are forced to impose £20 for a community sentence, and £30 for a prison sentence, on children as young as ten. Most children don’t have the money to pay and their parents end up paying the charge and thus being punished themselves.
If we do impose fines and charges, we should make it as easy as possible to pay them. But magistrates tell me that, as charges have risen, the courts are making it more difficult for them to be paid. In the old days, fine and charges could always be paid with cash in court. Even if the person only had a £10 note, the court took the down-payment, knowing that at least some of the fine had been paid. But most courts don’t any longer take cash – offenders have to take cash to the local bank, or pay online or by phone. This seems crazy. Cash is inconvenient to process but, for many people, it is the easiest and most natural way to make payments. And it should be made as easy as possible to pay it.
Fines and court charges are a Cinderella area of the criminal law. Fines are the most popular sanction in the magistrates’ courts, but there has been no recent academic research on how they are imposed, how paid and why not paid. We need to know more, before fine defaults spiral out of control. A key criticism of the criminal courts charge was that it lacked legitimacy. But how legitimate is a victim surcharge, which is not paid to an individual victim, and which has to be paid by people who have just left prison with no accommodation, jobs or benefits?