A new court cost designed to encourage people to plead guilty means homeless people will soon be chased for £150 fines they are unlikely to be able to pay.
The Howard League for Penal Reform today raised several cases of a new fine designed to encourage people to plead guilty and raise money for the Ministry of Justice. The cases included:
• A 26-year-old homeless man ordered to pay £150 for stealing a 99p can of Red Bull
• A 30-year-old homeless woman ordered to pay £150 for begging in a car park
• A 20-year-old homeless man ordered to pay £150 for kicking out at a flower pot after he was stabbed
• A 38-year-old homeless man ordered to pay £150 for breaching an Asbo prohibiting him from sitting within 10 metres of a cash machine
In each case the £150 relates to a mandatory criminal courts charge for anyone convicted of an offence on top of other levies such as fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and costs.
The fine is designed to encourage people to plead guilty and cut court costs. It rises from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates’ court to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.
The charge at crown court is £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.
"Up and down the country, people are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances," Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said.
"Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts.
"With more budget cuts on the way, ministers should be looking to shrink the system, not trapping more people in it for absurd offences."
Magistrates have no discretion over the charge and many are understood to be irritated by having to apply it.
In June, the Exeter Express & Echo reported on a case where a judge was required to impose a £900 charge on a homeless man who had admitted shoplifting.
The newspaper reported that, as the defendant was led away, the judge asked the courtroom: "He cannot afford to feed himself, so what are the prospects of him paying £900?"
The Ministry of Justice is an unprotected department and is expected to face cuts of up to 40% when parliament returns from summer recess.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
"It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.
"The introduction of this charge makes it possible to recover some of the costs of the criminal courts from these offenders, therefore reducing the burden on taxpayers."