A magistrate in North Tyneside has resigned over new court fees that will “force the innocent to plead guilty” simply because of their financial circumstances.
Magistrate George Lyons said “justice is only going to be for those who can afford it” after the Criminal Courts Charge were introduced in April.
Criminal defendants have had to pay a new levy of up to £1,200 for standing trial and the fees potentially quadruple if someone pleads not guilty and is then convicted.
The chronicle live reports: Now George Lyons, a member of the bench in North Tyneside for 15 years, has turned his back on the role, and written to the Magistrates Association’s Magistrate magazine claiming the fees put pressure on people to admit crimes they did not commit in order to avoid a bigger bill.
“This is a terrible piece of legislation introduced through the back door,” wrote Mr Lyons, who fears the rules – which courts have no discretion over – could “criminalise many people because that is the option” for them.
“Justice is only going to be for those who can afford it.”
He is among 20 magistrates across the country to have told the Magistrates’ Association they were resigning amid fears that the system is now both convicting the innocent, and seeing many “uncollectable” fines issued – as many defendants are serial offenders on low incomes who will be unable to pay.
“I can fully understand magistrates resigning over this,” said Magistrates’ Association chairman Richard Monkhouse. “When courts impose fines, they take account of an offender’s ability to pay.
“Yet this charge offers neither judicial discretion nor means-testing at the point it is imposed and seeks to undo any attempts to be fair and proportionate.”
He added: “There are already reports of people under pressure to plead guilty, particularly as they increasingly find themselves acting for themselves.”
The Association has told justice secretary Michael Gove of their concerns and want the charge – which comes on top of any fines, compensation for victims, the “victim surcharge, which funds victims’ services, or prosecution costs – to be reviewed after it has been in force for six months.
The fee starts at £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence, rising to £180 for a guilty plea for a more serious, either way offence, where defendants have a choice whether to have their case heard at magistrates’ or crown court.
The surcharge increases to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea and trial for a summary offence and £1,000 for a conviction after a not guilty plea for an either way offence.
In the crown court, the charges are £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for conviction after a not guilty plea.
The charges have also been condemned by the Law Society, which represents 150,000 solicitors in England and Wales.
“We think that this charge is counterproductive and against the interest of natural justice,” said the organisation’s president Jonathan Smithers.
“It is a huge incentive for people to plead guilty when they may not be because these are significant amounts of money.”