Do not mistake this for a witch-hunt. It is not. Rather, it is a ninny-hunt. In fact, if there was sufficient slogan space on the t-shirts that I, as a modern-day Thomas Danforth, would distribute to the villagers along with their flaming torches, it is a Legally-Illiterate-Ninny-Who-Has-Inexplicably-Found-His-Hands-On-The-Oxidated-Levers-of-Justice hunt.
Shailesh Vara MP, the under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice since 7th October 2013, has already reserved for himself a special place in the hearts of the Bar by marching to the media in January 2014 armed with a fistful of misleading statistics purporting to attribute average annual earnings of £84,000 to criminal barristers (the reality being an average net income of around £27,000). Having been soundly thrashed by the UK Statistics Authority, he has not sought to pursue this line of attack, commonly falling back instead on the Ministry of Justice’s other favourite trope, the “most expensive legal aid system in Europe” fallacy.
I have previously suggested that Mr Vara is a mendacious bozo. I illustrated this considered submission as below:
I now recognise that this was wrong. After yesterday, I am coming round to the sad realisation that he is, in fact, merely incapable of grasping the essentials of his brief. Over promoted beyond any ability to which he might one day aspire. The milk monitor fast-tracked to deputy headteacher, dribbling through governance meetings with periodic interjections of “What about the milk?”, as the grown ups exchange raised eyebrows and nod at him with big, patronising smiles.
At Justice Questions yesterday, Mr Vara was asked, quite properly, about the ongoing impact of the appalling Criminal Courts Charge, the mandatory financial penalty that courts are now forced to impose upon defendants regardless of their means. So grotesque is this brainchild of now-ejected Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that magistrates nationwide are resigning in protest, and most Crown Court judges, in my experience, are “forgetting” to impose it, prosecuting and defence counsel complicit in a conspiracy of silence aimed at harshing Mr Grayling’s mellow.
Anyway, Mr Vara, as bozo with responsibility for such matters, engaged in the following exchange with Labour MP Kate Hollern:
T7.  Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab): When the criminal courts charge was introduced, Labour warned that the lack of judicial discretion would result in miscarriages of justice, with people pleading guilty to avoid additional cost. It concerns me that people may be pleading guilty to save money in the short term. That will have a longer term impact on employment opportunities. Does the Minister think that is right and fair?
Mr Vara: I very much hope that if people are innocent, they will plead innocent. It is important to remember that the charge is levied at the end of all the other charges—costs, compensation, victims’ surcharge and so on. The charge is also based on ability to pay, so if people are having difficulty, they will not be forced to pay. If they do keep to their payments, no matter how minimal they are, then after two years the rest of the sum is actually scrapped.
Putting aside the unfortunate turn of phrase “plead innocent”, betraying an understanding of criminal procedure ad idem to a belief that being a doctor involves running around a hospital ward with a stethoscope shouting “stat”, it is Mr Vara’s understanding of the operation of the Criminal Courts Charge that causes particular alarm.
Let’s, in the words of Kid Ink, break it down.
“The charge is levied at the end of all the other charges – costs, compensation, victims’ surcharge and so on.” Chronologically, Mr Vara is right. Usually, when passing sentence, the Criminal Courts Charge is the final order announced by the court. It is also right that, when it comes to collecting defendant’s court debts, other financial orders take precedence. But that is not what Mr Vara is trying to convey. He is being asked directly about the affordability of the charge, and is plainly implying that the Charge is only imposed after consideration has been given to affordability of all financial orders imposed. This is entirely false. The regulations specifically prevent the court from taking the charge into account when setting the level of sentence. It is a fixed sum, payable regardless of the level of fine, compensation or prosecution costs.
“The charge is also based on ability to pay”. As above, this is simply not true. The charge, up to £1,200, is imposed irrespective of ability to pay. This is why 50 magistrates have resigned and judges and practitioners nationwide are despairing. It’s not because we have an inherent fondness for the lowlife we prosecute and defend. It’s because we recognise, as civilised beings, that it is abhorrent to order, under threat of imprisonment, that people pay the state disproportionate financial penalties that they plainly can’t ever meet.
“If they are having difficulty, they will not be forced to pay”. The best that can be said is that after two years the magistrates have a discretion to remit the charge, but this is contingent on the defendant having not only paid as much as possible, but also having remained “offence free” for two years. As everyone in the criminal justice system, bar Mr Vara, recognises, those hit hardest by the CCC are the penniless, shoplifting drug addicts who, even during an ultimately successful rehabilitation period, will intermittently slip and re-offend. Thus the MoJ has fashioned a splendid, and publicly-funded, revolving door in which Criminal Court Charges are imposed consecutively against petty offenders, with the prospect of the charge being remitted forever two years away.
Oh, and over that never-ending two-year period, the government has the power to charge interest. Just to make sure that that rock keeps rolling back down the hill.
I do not blame Shailesh Vara for attempting to defend the indefensible. I do it professionally on a daily basis. But if he were in court, he would have been publicly scorched by a Crown Court Judge for making submissions on a premise so removed from the facts that it is plain he has not mastered – perhaps even read – his brief.
In language that a bozo can understand – if he’s going to stand up in Parliament and talk nonsense about a despicable policy, Mr Vara could at least have the decency to try to understand it.