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News Round-Up Week Ending 20.11.15

(Posted on 20/11/15)

News Round-Up Week Ending 20.11.15

“Scrap Criminal Courts Charge”.

A cross-party parliamentary committee has recommended that the criminal courts charge be scrapped.

Since April, convicted criminals in England and Wales have had to pay a charge, which is not means-tested, of up to £1,200.

"The evidence we have received has prompted grave misgivings about the operation of the charge, and whether, as currently framed, it is compatible with the principles of justice," committee chairman Bob Neill said. 

The committee's report cited the case of a woman who had admitted stealing a four-pack of Mars Bars worth 75p, saying she "had not eaten in days" after her benefits were sanctioned. She was ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge on top of her £73 fine, £85 costs, a £20 victim surcharge and 75p compensation.

More than 50 magistrates have resigned in protest at the charge and human rights and justice groups say the charge puts pressure on defendants to plead guilty early, rather than risking higher charges if they are eventually convicted.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, called on the Ministry of Justice to suspend the policy immediately:

"The innocent have been put under pressure to plead guilty, and ordering indigent people to pay money they simply do not have is never going to work." 
The Ministry said it had noted concerns would keep the fee under review.

Improved Justice Responsible for Sex Case Increase 

Increases in sex offences reflect a sustained change in behaviour rather than the emergence of historical cases in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

In his annual press conference at the Royal Courts of Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said people had been encouraged to report sexual assaults by improvements in the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system. Pilot projects, in which victims are cross-examined shortly after an attack and the exchanges recorded to be shown later to a jury, will be expanded.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 31,621 rapes and 63,861 other sexual offences in England and Wales for the year ending June 2015, the highest levels since the national crime recording standard was introduced in 2002/03. Convictions for violence against women and girls increased by 17% last year.

“The rise in sexual offences is continuing,” Lord Thomas said. “Some people thought it was because of historic crimes. The view now taken is that this is not right but that there’s an increasing [amount] of sexual offending … which is contemporaneous. I have no doubt that the way in which we have improved the treatment of witnesses at the police station, by the prosecution authorities and in court [have contributed to the rise]. 

“Although there’s a long way to go, people may be more willing to take their complaints to court. We have made giving evidence better, [although it remains] a horrible experience.”