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Government Still Chasing Millions In Unpaid Criminal Courts Charges

The charge, levied between April and December last year on anyone convicted of a criminal offence, was widely criticised for imposing unrealistic fines on vulnerable people.

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The courts are still owed millions of pounds by people convicted of crimes who have failed to pay a controversial charge that was stopped in December.

Chris Young / EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

The interior of Belmarsh magistrates court in southeast London.

The criminal courts charge (CCC) was introduced in April 2015, and forced anyone who pleaded guilty or was convicted of a criminal act to pay between £150 and £1,200 depending on the offence.

The charge was brought in by former justice secretary Chris Grayling, who said would make criminals, rather than the taxpayer, "pay their way" and cover the cost of the justice system.

But the charge was criticised as being "Dickensian" in its unfairness, forcing vulnerable people – including the jobless and homeless – to pay regardless of their financial circumstances. The charge was payable on top of legal fees, the victim surcharge, and any fines the court chose to impose.

Grayling's successor as justice secretary, Michael Gove, announced on Christmas Eve that the charge would be stopped. But there is no amnesty for those previously ordered to pay the charge, and the government insists that it will get all the outstanding money.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show:

* In the second quarter of 2015, CCCs were handed out totalling £5.7 million. Only £300,000 or 5% of that was paid within one month and after six months only £1.1 million, or 20% of the outstanding amount, had been paid.

* In the third quarter of 2015, courts handed out a total of £22 million in CCCs – but just 4% of that had been retrieved within a month.

* In the fourth quarter, criminals were ordered to pay £40 million in CCCs – only £2 million, or 5%, of that had been paid within a month. Full data for the second half of the year isn't yet available.

* In 2014, before the CCC was introduced, the courts imposed fines and payments of £444.5 million, 11% of which was paid within a month, 31% within three months, and 41% within six months.

Justice reform charities had argued strongly that the charge was unworkable because of defendants' inability to pay it.

A string of magistrates resigned over the issue, with some arguing that defendants were being encouraged to plead guilty to get a lower charge.

Dr Laura Janes, legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "The collection figures show how unfair, unrealistic, and unjust the charge was. It was a failing policy that disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. The Howard League applauds the current lord chancellor [Gove] for scrapping it.

"The criminal courts charge did succeed, however, in shining a light on the churn of the number of mentally ill, homeless, and indigent people needlessly clogging up the courts. The government needs to go further. Wholescale reform of the courts is needed to ensure they work effectively for victims, communities, and taxpayers."

The MoJ said that the charge was always meant to be paid after criminals had paid other charges such as the victim surcharge, via an optional instalment plan, and that the collection rate was in line with expectations.

A spokesperson said: "We have listened to the concerns raised about the criminal courts charge and the charge has not been imposed since 24 December."

The MoJ also pointed out that the charge hasn't been eradicated entirely but "paused" while other ways are found for criminals to contribute to the running of the courts, which is the subject of an ongoing government review.

The CCC was in part designed to pay for the digital overhaul of the courts, which will see criminal trials in England and Wales go "paperless" this month, despite reports of technical problems.


Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Patrick Smith at patrick.smith@buzzfeed.com.

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