How wealthy do you have to be before you can afford to plead Not Guilty?
The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 received Royal Assent on 12 February 2015 and will come into force on 13 April 2015.
The Act makes provision for longer sentences for certain offences and introduces new ones.
However what is the most striking feature for many people will be the new introduction of a new requirement for convicted defendants to pay a separate court charge which will go directly to the court (rather than the prosecution) to cover the cost of running the courts.
At the moment convicted defendants can be ordered to pay a fine, a contribution towards the prosecution's costs in bringing the case (i.e. to the Crown Prosecution Service) and a 'victim surcharge', which is used to support victim support services.
The "criminal courts charge" will go towards the costs of providing the judiciary and the rest of the system of the courts excluding the Supreme Court. There is provision in the Act for the Lord Chancellor (Chris Grayling) to make Regulations specifying the amount although in order to inform the Parliamentary debate on the Bill some guidance figures were produced. The charge will range between £150 and £1200.
A motorist would have to pay £150 if they pleaded guilty to an allegation such as speeding at the first hearing– but £720 if they were convicted after a trial! For an offence such as dangerous driving dealt with in the Magistrates Court the difference is between a charge of £210 for an early guilty plea and £1000 if convicted after a trial!
Motorists should be aware that this courts charge will be that it will not be means tested unlike fines and contributions towards costs. These are based on what a defendant can reasonably pay based on their weekly income after tax and National Insurance deductions.
Tim Williamson says,
"The Magistrates Association is concerned about how this scheme will work in practice and so are we. It is a long established principle that fines and costs are ordered in proportion with a defendant's means and therefore their ability to pay.
We are concerned that these new court charges could be levelled out of all proportion. We are also concerned that this may encourage people to plead guilty in an effort to keep costs down rather because they maintain their innocence.
We cannot have a situation where only the wealthy can afford to plead not guilty but there is more chance of this unhappy situation developing with the introduction of these charges."