A senior magistrate resigned over new rules which mean repeat criminals will be continuously bailed – and court fees will go unpaid.
Bob Hutchinson, 60, stepped down from the Blackpool and Fylde magistrates bench after 11 years in protest at changes he believes are undermining the local justice system.
In the past, it didn’t mater what offence was committed, you could remand somebody in custody if they fell into one of these categories.Mr Hutchinson
The South Shore resident highlighted new rules that mean magistrates have no choice in some cases but to bail repeat offenders, putting the community at risk.
He also warned the new criminal courts charge, imposed on all offenders regardless of their financial situation, will be “unrecoverable” in many cases in Blackpool.
He estimates around 85 per cent of defendants he sees are on benefits and said the charges, which can range from £100 to £1,000 in the magistrates court, will leave many people owing debts to the court that will eventually be written off.
Mr Hutchinson, who first became a magistrate in 2004 and spent the last three years as deputy chairman of the bench, said he wrote to then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling over current bail rules, which prevent defendants being kept behind bars if there is no real prospect of them being jailed if convicted.
He said: “It’s an absolute disgrace to public safety.
“The three main reasons for not giving somebody bail is if they have got a history of absconding, committing offences while on bail or interfering with witnesses.
“In the past, it didn’t mater what offence was committed, you could remand somebody in custody if they fell into one of these categories.
“Now, unless an offence is imprisonable if they are found guilty, you are not allowed to remand them – it’s a real worry for public safety.
“You are giving him another chance to offend – he has already done it before.”
The Ministry of Justice said people on bail are subject to strict conditions and the overwhelming majority do not re-offend.
Another concern which led to Mr Hutchinson handing in his resignation letter on July 18 was the introduction of the new criminal courts charge in April for all offenders who plead or are found guilty.
He added: “We have a lot of trials at Blackpool Magistrates Court because a lot of people plead not guilty.
“The charge is £520 if you are found guilty. There are people that can’t pay that – they won’t pay it. It will be on the books, they will pay off £5 a week and the court will never collect it all.”
Courts have the power to write off debt where it is impractical to recover.
The Gazette put all of Mr Hutchinson’s concerns to the Ministry of Justice.
A spokesman said: “It is right that convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them.
“The introduction of this charge makes it possible to recover some of the costs of the criminal courts from these offenders, therefore reducing the burden on taxpayers.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “People are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances.
“Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts.”
Mr Hutchinson also hit out at unpopular plans to merge Lancashire’s magistrates into one county-wide bench.
He said the plans were strongly opposed by the majority of Lancashire magistrates, who fear the plans would be counter-productive.
He added: “You’re talking about the potential, when people commit offences in this town, they could be sent to Burnley or Ormskirk.
“How are they going to get there? They have got no money, a lot of these people.”
He said the plans will end up costing more in travel expenses and lead to more missed hearings and wasted court time.
He also said it runs against the basic principles of summary justice that punishments should be handed out by people in the area where the offence was committed.
Think tank Policy Exchange warned in a paper published last year of the “threat to local justice” from court closures and centralisation of services.
An HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: “A formal consultation was held on proposals to reduce the number of Local Justice Areas (LJAs) in Lancashire from seven to three, two or one. It was decided to reduce them to one, subject to the views of the senior presiding judge and ministerial approval. Of those magistrates who responded to the consultation, two thirds wanted the number of LJAs reduced. The merger will have no impact on court sittings or where cases are held.
“The reasons for the proposed merger are to improve the effective delivery of justice by increasing flexibility to deal with cases and increase the opportunities for magistrates to retain experience and thus competence in all areas of work. If approved, the merger will come into force on April 1, 2016.”