Since the 1st September 2014 people sentenced to a term of imprisonment by Magistrates Courts in England and Wales have been ordered to pay a victim surcharge upon their release from prison.
Whilst there are many people who may applaud the idea of offenders paying into a fund that assists support services for victims, this extension to the scheme to include those who have just been released from prison, regardless of their circumstances, is clearly ill conceived and will only add to the hundreds of millions of pounds that go uncollected by the courts every year.
The victim surcharge scheme was introduced in 2007. Initially every offender who appeared before the Court and was made the subject of a fine was ordered to pay an additional £15 surcharge with the money going to support victims of crime. In 2012, the scheme was extended to include everyone sentenced by the Courts, other than those sent to prison by the Magistrates Court. The amount of the surcharge being determined by the sentence imposed. For example, those dealt with by way of a fine have been ordered to pay 10% of the value of the fine with a minimum sum of £20 and a maximum payment of £120. Those sentenced to community orders have been ordered to pay other fixed sums.
The Court have had no discretion in relation to the level of these payments. Until the beginning of September those people sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the Magistrates Court have been exempt from paying the surcharge. However, under the terms of the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 such offenders will now have to pay a surcharge upon release. For those sentenced to less than six months imprisonment the sum to pay will be £80. For those sentenced to between six months and twelve months imprisonment the sum will be £100. The Ministry of Justice estimates that this will apply to 43,000 cases each year.
It is understood that since 2010 £51m has been raised as a result of payments made under the surcharge scheme. However, Victims Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, has said that around £12m has not been collected in respect of surcharge payments that have been ordered. Other estimates suggest that as far as unpaid fines and compensation orders are concerned approximately £600m has not been collected. The figure for confiscation orders is said to exceed £1 billion.
Inability to Pay
With such large sums of money already outstanding there must be very little prospect that these further surcharge payments are going to be collected. Many of those sentenced to terms of imprisonment in the Magistrates Court are those who are homeless and often people whose lives are so chaotic that they are no longer even receiving benefits. Frequently they are released from prison back into identical circumstances with no prospect of being able to make payments to the Court.
I recently represented someone in precisely this situation. For a series of shoplifting offences he was sentenced to sixteen weeks imprisonment. The District Judge then imposed a surcharge of £80 and directed that this be paid within the next ten weeks. Whilst the offender will serve no more than eight weeks of the custodial sentence, there is no prospect whatsoever of him being able to pay £80 in the two weeks after he gets out of prison.
District Judges and Magistrates have plenty of discretion in relation to the sentences they pass, however, the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 means that there is no discretion when it comes to the imposition of the surcharge upon those being sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
It is quite clear that this legislation is ill thought through and is only going to lead to a vast increase in the sums of money already outstanding in respect of unpaid fines, compensation and surcharge payments. Offenders who are sent to prison are punished. The victims of crime deserve to be supported but this extension to the surcharge scheme is going to benefit nobody.
Written by David Philpott