From next month defendants can expect to receive a bill from the Ministry of Justice for the costs of their court case. Non-means tested and ranging from £150 to £1200, the fees will be levied in addition to custody, community orders, fines and legal fees. You can read the official line on the fees here.
The fees will be on a sliding scale with defendants effectively being incentivised for an early guilty plea. The more the case costs the state, the longer it lasts and the more complex the evidence is, the greater the bill will be at the end of it. If you plead guilty or are found guilty then the Crown is likely to ask you to contribute to the cost of the prosecution.
The potential impact on vulnerable defendants is deeply concerning. Research already shows that those with vulnerabilities (mental health problems, learning difficulties etc) are more likely to plead guilty to an offence when they are, in fact, innocent. This can only increase with the additional worry of court fees growing larger, the longer the court case lasts. A good number of the people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are already in debt. Given the choice its likely that many would rather cut their losses and take the conviction rather than fight it and risk more debt (and the stress, baliffs and CCJs that come with it). A criminal justice system that bullies people into a guilty plea to protect the pounds in their pockets is perserve and wrong.
The fees can be paid in installments and it is reasonable to predict that they will be taken out of salaries or benefits (similar to other state-levied sanctions). Long after the sentence has been served or the community order discharged, people can expect to feel a financial burden. These costs will then get passed on indirectly, making it a punishment for the whole family. Research by Child Poverty Action Group demonstrates the cost of child poverty on society, including the criminal justice system- where defendants from deprived backgrounds feature disproportionately.
The new fees also echo an even more punitive system used in some US states where defendants are required to pay for their bed and board in prisons. When released they end up crippled by the cost of their crime, not just through the years missed in custody but by the bill from their prison stay, which can run into the 10,000s of dollars. The system often puts people back into prison. Either through the inability to pay the debt, creating de facto Dickensian-style debtors prisons or through recourse to further crime due to the poverty of paying off what they owe.
We can only hope that the new rules don’t lead us down a similar path.