Since becoming Justice Secretary, Michael Gove has been quietly undoing much of the damage done by his predecessor Chris Grayling. This is not to say that he is an ideal Justice Secretary – far from it. However he is certainly an improvement on the walking disaster that is Mr. Grayling.
A previous significant ‘U-turn’ was the announcement that prisoners would once again be allowed to have their books in their cells. I have no idea why anyone would think it a good idea to stop inmates from reading – this can only have been a ban imposed through malice by Mr. Grayling.
Now Mr. Gove has decided that the Criminal Courts Charge should go. It is not actually being abolished, as most of the press coverage would have it, but reduced to zero. Judges and magistrates will have to impose it, but in the sum of £0. This is a bit of a farce, but much better than the £1,200 that they were often forced to impose on unemployed or imprisoned defendants who had no hope of paying.
The biggest concern that most had in relation to the Charge was that it encouraged defendants to plead guilty in order to avoid the higher Charge imposed on those who lost trials. In other words, it simply wasn’t worth the gamble for some people. That perverse incentive has now gone, and the rush of magistrates resigning over the issue (reportedly over 100) can now stop.
However, Mr. Gove has said that he thinks it right that defendants should have to pay for the cost of running the courts, and so it appears that the Charge will be replaced with something else. This is more controversial than it seems. The state has a duty to ensure that citizens have access to justice, and as such has historically provided civil and criminal courts from general taxation. Making defendants pay for the courts which will also punish them if they are found guilty is a bit like making those who are careless with their health pay more for going to hospital, or those who smoke in bed pay a little more for the fire brigade.
In any event, there are some questions outstanding:
- Why must the Charge continue to be imposed for the next few weeks? If it is unfair, why not abolish it with immediate effect?
- What will it be replaced with?
- What will be done about the many millions of pounds of outstanding Charges? If magistrates are to be asked to take enforcement action against those who refuse to pay this unfair charge, it may well be that the resignations have not quite finished yet.
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