In recent days the new Criminal Courts Charge has been imposed for the first time on those unfortunate souls convicted of TV licence evasion.
The charge applies to anyone convicted of a criminal offence in England and Wales, except where they are sentenced to an absolute discharge or a hospital or guardianship order. It is separate from other financial orders that the court may make such as compensation, a fine or prosecution costs.
You might remember from our earlier post that TV Licensing likes to "play the system" by taking as long as possible to summon an alleged TV licence evader to court. That accounts for the fact that the charge, which applies to offences committed since 13th April 2015, is only being seen for the first time now, some four months later.
The new charge is levied at the following rates:
- Conviction by a Magistrates' Court in proceedings conducted in accordance with section 16A of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (e.g. trial by a single Justice on the papers) - £150.
- Conviction by a Magistrates' Court for a summary offence on a guilty plea - £150.
- Conviction by a Magistrates' Court at a trial of a summary offence where (a) the defendant did not enter a plea, (b) the trial proceeded in the absence of the defendant, and (c) the court dealt with the case on the papers without reliance on any oral evidence - £150.
- Conviction by a Magistrates' Court for an offence triable either-way on a guilty plea - £180.
- Conviction by a Magistrates' Court at a trial of a summary offence - £520.
- Conviction by the Crown Court on a guilty plea - £900.
- Conviction by the Crown Court at a trial on indictment - £1,200.
- Magistrates' Court when dealing with a person for failure to comply with a community order, suspended sentence order or supervision requirement - £100.
- Crown Court when dealing with a person for failure to comply with a community order, suspended sentence order or supervision requirement - £150.
Most TV licence offenders fall under the second or third bullet point, which means they'll end up paying £150 in addition to any fine, prosecution costs and victim surcharge imposed by the court. By our reckoning, this means total costs of around £390 for a person pleading guilty of TV licence evasion from the outset.
Anyone pleading not guilty to TV licence evasion, who is subsequently convicted after trial, can expect to pay a Criminal Courts Charge of £520. Combined with fines, prosecution costs and the victim surcharge, anyone in that situation isn't going to get much change out of £1,000.
That really is a mind-boggling figure to most people accused of TV licence evasion, who find themselves in the position they're in through a genuine inability to pay the £145.50 licence fee in the first place.
In our opinion the Criminal Courts Charge is incompatible with efficient justice. The prospect of pleading not guilty and facing a £1,000 bill if the court gets it wrong, which is not unheard of. must fill a lot of genuinely innocent individuals with trepidation. Some of those will see pleading guilty, even though they aren't, as the cheapest and safest option. It will also see the poorest people in society burdened with financial penalties they can never afford to pay. That is an insult to justice.
The mandatory charge is not means-tested, so an unemployed first-time offender faces exactly the same charge as a wealthy repeat offender. This has led to the farcical situation where a homeless South Shields man, who pleaded guilty to stealing a 99 pence can of Red Bull, left court with a conditional discharge and £165 bill he'll never be able to pay.
Former North Tyneside Magistrate George Lyons, one of many decent people to resign from the bench in protest, slammed the fee as "a terrible piece of legislation introduced through the back door". He shares our concern that the new charge "will force innocent people to plead guilty" and "justice is only going to be for those that can afford it".
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.
"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."
TV Licensing must be rubbing its hands with glee at the prospect of more innocent people pleading guilty to an offence they haven't committed. Every guilty plea means an extra £120 straight into the Crapita Christmas fund.
The word sickening doesn't quite cut it.