A criminologist and government researcher has said the criminal courts charge which people are frequently unable to pay is in breach of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Speaking to The Independent, Mike Hough, professor of criminal policy at Birkbeck Universitysaid the fees introduced earlier this year by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling deny defendants the right to a fair trial as they incentivise the accused to plead guilty.
Professor Hough is responsible for establishing the Home Office’s British Crime Survey and has done research for the Ministry of Justice.
After being introduced this year, the charge has resulted in 50 magistrates resigning.
Professor Hough said: “I do think it’s a very unfair and very unpleasant bit of legislation that imposes very large costs on people without giving judges and magistrates any discretion to waive the charge where defendants clearly can’t afford them.
“It strikes me that these mandatory charges are in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. How can you have the right to a fair trial if you can only have one if you can pay for it?
“Article six gives people the right to a fair trial. I can’t see that you can have the right to a fair trial if you have to pay £1,200 to the court for it if you lose. It provides an added incentive to plead guilty even when you are innocent.”
Professor Hough added: “If you have somebody on benefits who’s hit with, let’s say, an £1,000 magistrates’ court trial charge, the court’s fines officer is going to spread it over time but it’s going to be totally unpayable, especially when combined with a victim surcharge and possibly a fine.
“The idea that somebody in that position can deal with that combined level of fine is ludicrous.”
He added that the new law may have been brought in as secondary legislation to avoid it being closely scrutinised, saying: “Like most people, I was taken by surprise by the charges.
“I didn’t realise they were planned until after they went live. The changes were buried as a secondary piece of legislation, coupled to some innocuous-seeming primary legislation. Secondary legislation does not have to go through any human rights assessment.”
He added: “It’s objectionable in the same way as the victim surcharge is objectionable, except on a much greater scale. When the victim surcharge was introduced in 2007 it was a symbolic payment of around £15.
“But in 2012 it was changed to be much more onerous. Defendants were charged a percentage of their fine, or £60 if they were given a community order.
“The charges were mandatory – and often bigger than accompanying fines. I have a suspicion that the government thought that having got away with that, they felt able to bring in other charges.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them. Offenders can pay in affordable instalments.”