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March 18, 2017

Do criminals deserve to be punished three times for one crime?

“An eye for an eye” is a strongly held belief – that those who cause great harm through committing a crime should be punished in equal measure.  People rail against soft punishments.  But in fact many of those who commit crime pay at least three ways.  They get a sentence – in England and Wales too often prison. And they are also punished financially, and face a lifetime of discrimination because of their criminal record.

I am sometimes contacted by people who tell me hair-raising stories about the justice system.  I have been in touch with two who are facing financial ruin, and losing their family home, because of the crimes they did – not because they themselves have lost money, but because their legal cases have cost so much. They are both serving or have served prison sentences for non violent crimes.  When they faced trial, they were comfortable financially, but not so comfortable that they could pay privately for a lawyer. So they signed up to the Legal Aid Agency’s contributions scheme whereby, if you have a “disposable household income” above c £4000 per year, you contribute towards the cost of your legal advice. If you are acquitted, you get the money back but, if you are convicted, the winner (the state) takes practically all. Before the start of any process, the Legal Aid Agency gets defendants to sign a clause that, if they are found guilty, they will pay all the legal fees from their capital, which includes the family house.  This is signing a blank cheque, since no-one can say exactly what defence legal fees will be, nor prosecution costs. The person convicted has to pay these too.

I think people accused of a serious crime are in high stress and sign the “winner takes (practically) all” clause without really thinking through the implications.  Months later, when they are in prison, their nearest and dearest get heavy letters from legal agencies and bailiffs asking them to pay huge sums -often way over £100,000. The Legal Aid Agency has a “charge” on at least a thousand houses in England and Wales.  This means they own them outright, or in part.  They say that currently they do not force people to sell their homes, but they call in their debt when the house is sold. This means that, if the family of a convicted person needs to move to a different area, or to sell to satisfy other debts (eg prosecution costs which can amount to over £100,000 and/or confiscation orders), they lose their home.

There is limited sympathy for the plight of those who commit serious crime, but these are tough punishments over and above imprisonment. And I feel a bit queasy about the justice in the husband/wife and children of an offender being so financially penalised for something their nearest and dearest did.  Is that really fair, or compliant with human rights?

How could we improve things when our Ministry of Justice is so financially squeezed itself?  One is to step back and consider whether financially ruining people is really beneficial to the state, the other is to ask whether Crown Court trials should be costing defendants so much?  A fairly routine Crown Court trial can cost in total over £200,000. My FOI request revealed that one individual paid the Legal Aid Agency over £2 million for his legal advice.  Lawyers should not be paid less for their work, but can we simplify the system so the overall costs are reduced?

PS  It is difficult to understand what is really going on with the LAA charge on houses.  If anyone has any info please email Penelope@transformjustice.org.uk

PPS Transform Justice has published its briefing on the Prisons and Courts Bill