The Justice Secretary has announced the abandonment of the controversial Criminal Courts Charge less than a year after it was introduced by his predecessor.
Addressing the Magistrates' Association at its annual general meeting, Michael Gove announced that the non-means-tested charge - which was applied to virtually everyone convicted of a criminal offence in England or Wales - was being discontinued for all new cases dealt with by the courts after Christmas Eve.
The mandatory charge has been deeply unpopular with Magistrates, with more than 100 resigning amid concerns that the fee would unfairly influence the plea of defendants appearing before the court.
Mr Gove said: "(The charge) was introduced for the best of reasons: to ensure that those who impose costs on the criminal justice system make a contribution to those costs wherever possible.
"If you’ve deliberately broken the law, if the taxpayer has to shell out to ensure justice is done, and if you have the means, then there can clearly be a case for the court imposing a financial penalty.
"But it has become clear that while the intention behind the policy was honourable, in reality that intent has fallen short. Whenever I have had the opportunity to talk to magistrates over the last six months, the criminal courts charge has been raised and in almost every case it has been criticised... I would like to give the judiciary - including, of course, the magistracy - greater discretion in setting financial orders."
In an earlier post we explored the possible impact of the charge on those accused of TV licence evasion.
Back then we said: "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."
We are very relieved at the Justice Secretary's decision, but won't be applauding too loudly as the charge should never have been introduced by his predecessor, Chris Grayling, in the first case.
The decision is sadly too late for those innocent defendants that pleaded guilty simply to avoid the full brunt of the charge. Sadly, we don't think it's possible for the courts to review those cases, so undoubtedly many individuals will remain wrongly saddled with a criminal label.
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