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January 4, 2021

Does it matter if those accused of crime plead guilty or not guilty?

Just before Christmas news leaked out that the government was getting cold feet about decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence fee. Currently those who don’t pay are prosecuted and have to pay a substantial fine if convicted. People commented that the means of enforcing collection of the fee through civil means – by sending in the bailiffs – was harsher than the current system. Both options are imperfect, but I can’t see that the present system of punishing those who don’t pay the licence fee works well.

People accused of not paying their licence fee are charged through the post. They receive a letter detailing the prosecution and how to respond – which they can do either online or by filling in a form (or by attending court if they really want to).  Most people who are prosecuted using this postal route don’t respond at all by pleading guilty or not guilty. They’re then automatically assumed to be guilty and automatically assumed to be able to pay the standard fine and costs, which can amount to hundreds of pounds. The “sentence” might as well be done by a computer, but is in fact decided by a magistrate sitting on their own in a closed court, with phone/video access to a legal advisor if needed.

The problem with the Single Justice Procedure is that people are convicted and sanctioned without engaging with the criminal justice process at all. No-one knows why so few people respond – do they actually receive the crucial letter? Do they lose it? Do they “put their head in the sand”? Do they have mental health problems/learning difficulties/autism? There is a dearth of information or research. So I was excited to notice that HMCTS had done some research. It was not in the public domain so I put in a freedom of information request. I received a heavily redacted report on TV licensing non-payment and another on driving offences dealt with by the Met.

The research aimed to test the effect on engagement of redesigning the letter defendants receive and the accompanying form. All respondents were encouraged to plead online rather than use the paper form. Copies of these forms are not in the public domain but it appears that more people did respond to the criminal charge facing them. 6% more people pleaded guilty or not guilty but still, even with the new letter, 73% of those accused of this criminal offence did not respond.

One of the main purposes of the redesign project was to increase defendant engagement i.e the proportion of people who respond to the prosecution notice about their non payment of the TV licence. “Overall SJP engagement rates are low, with the majority of defendants failing to make a plea before the 28-day deadline. In addition, more defendants choose to submit a postal plea rather than use the online plea services. We identified that the SJPN template could be redesigned to improve engagement rates”. So it’s a little surreal that the report suggests the redesign was a resounding success and doesn’t point out that there is a big problem to resolve – that still only a quarter of defendants are responding. I don’t want to be churlish but am also not convinced that we’ve enough information to say whether the new forms work better – there’s only two months data and in only one of those months was there a significant difference between the control areas (using the old paperwork) and the Midlands, which used new paperwork.

There is considerable disquiet about the criminalisation of those who do not pay the TV licence fee. Redesigning the form was worth trying and testing, but it hasn’t mended a broken model of digital justice. Still no-one knows how to fix it because we don’t have the fundamental information we need – who doesn’t respond and why. But there are indications that those prosecuted are some of the most socially excluded in society. Is prosecuting 1000s of people who may not even know they have been charged better than a civil enforcement system? Bailiffs chase non payment of criminal court fines too. And a criminal conviction means a criminal record.

 

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