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June 3, 2015

Are the cuts to some parts of justice costing more than they save?

I’m concerned that the Ministry of Justice is not making the savings it intended to make, maybe because it is not modelling the total cost of changes made.  Throughout the court system, the costs have been stacked against both pleading innocent, appealing your sentence and paying for a lawyer.  In the magistrates’ courts you will now be faced both with huge costs (for someone on low income) and a higher sentence if you plead innocent and are found guilty. Then, there is little incentive to either appeal your sentence or your conviction since the financial costs are punitive. . I totally understand the desire of the government to increase the number of guilty pleas, but I think they underestimate the number of people who will plead guilty even if they believe they are innocent – because they cannot afford the financial risk of a trial/an appeal.  In the magistrates’ court someone who pleads guilty of an either way offence and is convicted will have to pay a court charge of £180.  Their sentence will be a fine, community or prison sentence which will cost the MoJ huge amounts.  If they plead innocent and lose (on an either way offence) they will have to pay £1000 court charge as well as CPS costs, victims’ surcharge etc.  A difference of £820+ is a huge incentive to plead guilty even if you are not.  The impact assessment for the court charges acknowledges the policy provides a “small incentive” to plead guilty, but the costs modelling is based on that incentive being so small that the balance of pleas will remain the same.  Though £5m has been allowed for the cost of imprisoning those who don’t pay the charges, nothing has been modelled for the cost of prison and community sentences for those who would previously have pleaded innocent and been acquitted.  The justice system is incredibly delicate.  The culture of practitioners  and judges was based on a system where the barriers to pleading innocence and getting the help of a lawyer were not so high.  If the culture of the system is fundamentally changed, we may see the prisons and probation providers being flooded with clients who cannot take the financial risk of pleading innocent.