Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has indicated that the government is reviewing the controversial charges attached to criminal courts in light of the concerns that have been expressed by a number of groups. Speaking in the House of Commons, where he was answering questions recently, Gove said that the government intended to review “the operation of the charge.”
This has led to hopes from many quarters that the charges could be reduced or dropped altogether. A number of different groups raised concerns about the introduction of charges to the criminal courts, including MPs, independent campaign groups, magistrates, and legal professionals.
The charges were first introduced in April, and attracted considerable controversy before and after being rolled out. Under the system, defendants who plead not guilty and are subsequently convicted could be required to pay fees of up to £1,200. This led to concerns that innocent people may be encouraged to plead guilty out of fear that pleading not guilty will just make things worse if they should still be convicted.
Controversy also surrounded the way in which new fee guidelines were introduced. In the closing days of the last parliament before the general election earlier this year, these guidelines were pushed into legislation with little or no debate – a move which attracted considerable criticism from organisations such as the Law Society.
Controversy only grew after the charge was introduced in April. Over 50 magistrates have resigned in order to protest the fees, and criticism has been widespread from parliament, the legal industry, and independent bodies.
Gove’s suggestion that the government may be looking into making changes to the new system has therefore been widely welcomed, with many organisations expressing hopes it will be scrapped altogether. There have already been some previous suggestions that the charges could be dropped, including discussion of the possibility of making up revenue from a new levy on the biggest City law firms instead of through these fees.
Gove was responding to a question from Conservative MP Alex Chalk when he gave the indication that the charges could be subject to review. Chalk asked whether judges and magistrates could have any discretion when it came to whether and how the charge should be imposed. Gove called this question a “valuable submission” and admitted that the fees on criminal courts were “cause for concern for the house.”
Gove also said that while the government had listened to the various concerns expressed and indicated that the situation would therefore be reviewed. However, he also insisted that these concerns had to be balanced against various other considerations.