Poverty-stricken people are being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit out of fear they will face crippling costs imposed by new financial penalties, leading lawyers, magistrates and campaigners have warned.
Legal experts have called for an urgent review of the criminal courts charge, which has been compared to “18th-century” forms of justice after being implemented earlier this year.
The new levy was introduced by the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to make criminals pay for the upkeep of the courts. Because the charge can be up to 10 times higher if someone is found guilty after pleading innocence, critics say it is undermining the justice system by encouraging impoverished defendants to plead guilty even if they have done nothing wrong.
The charge is not means-tested or adjusted according to the seriousness of the crime. In the magistrates’ court it is fixed at £150 if someone pleads guilty, but it can rise to £1,000 if they are found guilty. Campaigners also say it has created an extra hardship for those whose crimes are motivated by poverty – and makes the punishment for small crimes disproportionate.
Many of those affected are homeless or unemployed, with no hope of paying. Recently subjected to the charge were a man who stole three bottles of baby milk, a woman who pinched a £2.39 bottle of shampoo and a homeless man who took a 99p can of Red Bull.
The Independent has learnt of a case this week where a man from Portsmouth was made to pay the £150 charge – as well as a £250 fine and a £25 victim surcharge – after pleading guilty to stealing a £1 bag of chocolate buttons from WHSmith. The charge was levied just a month after his application for bankruptcy was accepted.
The new policy was introduced on 13 April but since the charge can only be imposed on those whose crimes were committed after that date, the courts are only just beginning to see the full effect. At least 30 magistrates – many of them among the most experienced – have already stepped down from the bench over the changes and many more are predicted to resign as further cases come through.