New court charges “unfair” to less well-off drivers
New rules that require drivers convicted of motoring offences to pay expensive court costs could mean only the wealthy can afford to plead not guilty, a motoring law expert today warned.
Tim Williamson, a driver defence specialist at the law firm Blake Morgan, says the recently-introduced “criminal courts charge” is potentially unfair to drivers on lower incomes.
The charges were introduced in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which came into force on April 13.
Among the Act’s raft of measures was the introduction of the new charges which will go directly to the court to help cover the costs of running criminal cases.
The charges, set out by guidelines given to Parliament before the Act became law, are designed to rise according to how far the case goes on for in court.
A motorist who pleaded guilty to an allegation such as speeding at the first hearing could pay £150 but that may rise to £720 if they were convicted after a trial.
For a more serious offence such as dangerous driving, when dealt with in the Magistrates Court, an early guilty plea would result in a charge of £210 while a motorist convicted after trial could have to pay a charge of more than £1,000.
Unlike court fines and contributions to costs, this separate court charge is not means tested and is instead based on what a defendant can reasonably pay based on their weekly income after tax and deductions.
Tim Williamson said there were concerns this could lead to a two-tier justice system where wealthier motorists could afford to deny the offence but less well-off drivers may feel cornered into pleading guilty at the first opportunity, even if they believe they are innocent.
The charges have already proved controversial, as Magistrates Association chairman Richard Monkhouse voiced concerns on behalf of his members before they were introduced and called for them to be reviewed after six months in operation.
Tim said: “Solicitors will continue to advise clients in robust terms as to their plea on the basis of the evidence against them. However the Magistrates Association is concerned, as are we, about how this scheme will work in practice.
“It is a long-established principle that fines and costs are imposed in proportion with a defendant’s means and therefore their ability to pay.
“I am concerned that these new court charges could be levied out of all proportion to the means of a defendant. I am also worried that this may encourage people to plead guilty in an effort to keep costs down even if they maintain their innocence. Motorists will be asking themselves if they can afford to take the financial risk of defending a case.
“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.”