Anyone convicted of a criminal offence within England and Wales faces the eye-watering prospect of paying up to £1,200 towards court running costs, under new rules that came into force earlier this week.
According to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling the Criminal Courts Charge is designed to make criminals "pay their way", but the charge could prove particularly punitive for those accused of trivial summary offences like TV licence evasion.
The new rules, which came into force on 13th April 2015, mean that anyone convicted of a summary offence - those heard only at the Magistrates' Court - will face a charge of £150 if they plead guilty from the outset, or £720 if they are convicted after initially pleading not guilty.
The charges are even steeper for those convicted of either-way or indictable offences at the Magistrates' or Crown Court.
The mandatory charge is not means-tested, so an unemployed first-time offender faces exactly the same charge as a wealthy repeat offender. Courts will still be able to impose fines, costs and the victim surcharge in addition to the new charge.
As mentioned earlier, the new charge is particularly bad news for anyone convicted of trivial summary offences like TV licence evasion.
Previously, a person pleading guilty to TV licence evasion might have faced a fine of around £100 (although often lower), £120 costs and £20 victim surcharge. The total amount payable would therefore have been in the region of £240.
Even if they had pleaded not guilty, but were later found guilty by summary trial, it is unlikely the total amount payable would have exceeded £400.
Under the new system, a person pleading guilty to TV licence evasion would pay an additional £150, bringing the total cost to £390.
But if the defendant was convicted after a not guilty plea they would have to pay an additional £720. With the higher fine and costs associated with conviction by trial, the total amount payable could be almost £1,200.
Defendants accused of summary offences therefore face a stark decision: Do they plead guilty, whether or not they actually are, simply because it's the most economical option?
Richard Monkhouse, Chairman of the Magistrates' Association, is sceptical about the new charge: "Our members had concerns about this last year because, in our opinion, the potential impact of charges on defendants' pleas needed more analysis. There are ongoing concerns about criminal fine collection rates generally speaking, with efficiency in collection varying from area to area, so now that this is law, relevant agencies need to ensure proper processes are in place to make this work.
"Considering there is no judicial discretion in imposing these charges, our members are concerned it may make dealing with cases more difficult, not least because many offences have a financial element in the first place. It would be helpful to examine the impact of this change in say six months to see what works and what doesn’t."
Members of the legal profession have similar concerns. Speaking to The Law Society Gazette, Society President Andrew Caplan described the new charges as "outrageous" and "a threat to fair trials".
Mr Caplan added: "We are unaware of there having been any form of consultation as to these amounts. It is particularly disturbing that the Government has tabled these Regulations, which will be subject to no debate, in the final week of this Parliament."