In April 2015, new charges came into effect which have dramatically increased the cost of court proceedings in England and Wales. Since these charges were put in place, there has been much protest from civil liberty groups and legal professionals. Over 50 magistrates across England and Wales have stepped down as a direct result of the charges. They believe that the increase in the price of justice violates the core principles of the Magna Carta (which incidentally celebrated its 800th birthday in 2015).
The idea behind increasing the fees was that the courts are necessary only if there are people who break the law, so the people who break the law should be the ones to front at least their fair share of the costs of running them. But there is much doubt as to whether the increase in fees will actually reap much extra income for the justice system, since the majority of defendants cannot afford to pay the fees anyway. In fact, some studies suggest that higher fees will actually cost the government more money. Defendants who can’t pay the charges could be sent to jail or have their sentences extended, which is estimated to cost an extra £5 million a year on top of the costs of running the courts.
But the rise in fees has started to affect the course of justice. Because the fees rise as the court cases proceed, defendants who plead their innocence but who eventually lose their cases will end up having to pay much more. So now defendants aren’t necessarily being given a fair trial, as increasing numbers of them are choosing to plead guilty in order to keep the costs down. Those who plead guilty to their charges at the magistrates’ court are required to pay only £150. This fee jumps to £1,200 for those who lose their case at Crown Court and are ultimately convicted. The fee is not calculated based on how much the defendant can afford to pay; it is a blanket fee which anyone in the same position will have to pay. This means that the punishment is disproportionate and it is the country’s poorest who will suffer.
The increase in the fees has been said to put unnecessary pressure on people who are struggling financially to plead guilty against their will. The fees also are taking away some of the options that magistrates have available to them in the course of their work; magistrates now have a much more limited ability to use fines as a deterrent for lesser crimes, because there is little or no chance that some defendants will be able to pay these on top of the increased fees.
There have been cases in which those convicted have been ordered by the court to repay upwards of £1,500 in weekly instalments of £5. At this rate, it will take these people more than five years to pay back the total amount owed, which in many cases may be a punishment far more severe than the offence committed.
It is thought that as more and more cases arise where the outcomes seem completely unfair and unjust to those being prosecuted, there will only be more resignations to come from those working in the legal profession. There has been no indication from the government that these changes are going to be reversed, so for the foreseeable future, the increased fees will continue to have a huge impact on the prosecution of the poorest members of English and Welsh society. Only time will tell whether the charges have any influence at all as a deterrent or simply make access to justice virtually impossible for those who cannot afford to pay.