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Criminal Court Charges: a return to pre-Victorian values

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We need a tougher justice regime in these austere times – so why not bring back Dickensian-style debtors’ prisons? We’re not there yet, but we’re several steps along the way thanks to the UK Government’s Criminal Court Charges.

Magistrates have become concerned that they are obliged to impose these new charges – and potentially to jail offenders if they fail to pay them. In contrast to imprisonment for defaulting on fines, the Criminal Court Charges are not discharged by serving time in jail. There are set maximum levels for time in jail according to the amounts outstanding. So, if the Charge comes on top of other fines and payments, it can mean longer periods in jail for each defaulter.

The Debtors Act 1869 abolished imprisonment for contractual debt in England and Wales. Parts of the Act are still in force and make clear imprisonment is still available for “Default in payment of any sum recoverable summarily before a justice or justices of the peace” meaning fines, compensation and costs. The Government has in effect created a new category of imprisonable debt. Prison may be used only when the individual is “guilty of wilful refusal or culpable neglect” in failing to pay – the same wording used in guidance regarding the Criminal Court Charge. The potential term of imprisonment depends on the level of the amounts due (See Schedule 4 to the Magistrates Courts Act and notes below). The failure to pay the maximum £1,200 Criminal Court Charge could be penalised by up to 45 days in prison – at a cost of about £90 a day – more than three times the Charge itself.
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