Court Out: How our legal system penalises poverty

Occasionally you read something in the media that seems so outlandish you have to read it again to quite believe what you’ve just read. No, we’re not talking about the election of certain political leaders or the fact that Chelsea sit one place above the Premier League’s relegation zone. We’re talking about how charges are being levied in our courts. These are so blatantly unfair that magistrates are resigning in significant numbers in protest.

For example, you may need to sit down and read this several times before it sinks in:

” …. defendants recently required to pay the charge include a man from Sunderland who threw himself in front of an off-duty policeman’s car in a suicide attempt. He had been waiting for a lorry to take his life, but when none came along he jumped in front of a car and ended up in court for causing criminal damage to the vehicle. Gavin Lee, 26, was forced by Sunderland magistrates’ court to pay a £180 court charge – as well as £425 in insurance excess for the driver’s Mercedes. Lee, who had no previous convictions, was also charged for possessing drugs.”

Only in a very unequal society, where the poor are routinely seen as “other” and somehow beyond the normal considerations of decency, could a system arise that takes no account of income or seriousness of crime. If Britain wishes to continue to trumpet its justice system and sense of fair play around the world it will have to at least review this draconian policy as called for by the Howard League for Penal Reform

As things stand there are perverse incentives that can encourage guilty pleas and even trigger more crime as desperate people try to acquire the means to pay the charges – not to mention the obvious, fundamental and rank injustice that such charges ration access to justice in accordance with ability to pay.

Reforming or scrapping the policy would be a start but the real challenge lies in reducing inequality and the related burdens of poverty and mental illness that propel so many people towards the courts in the first place. Rather than tinkering about with inadequate, cruel and poorly thought out solutions to crime, we must tackle its causes instead.

Bill Kerry, Supporters & Local Groups Manager