A compassionate magistrate and a lamentable government

6 October 2015

This is a modern parable, with an unfortunate ending.

Nigel Allcoat, a magistrate from Leicester, had to decide what to do with a debtor, a young man who had been unable to pay a criminal court charge of £180. The man was destitute, surviving on the £36 a week provided to him by the state. There was no prospect of the charge being paid, yet Allcoat was not permitted by law to remit it.

And so, moved by the situation, Allcoat paid part of the charge himself, enough to ensure that the man could walk free from the court.

For this simple act of humanity, Allcoat was visited by extraordinary consequences. Not only was an investigation begun for judicial misconduct by a body called the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, but the threat that he posed to the judicial system was deemed so great that he was suspended from further duties pending its outcome.

All this emerged last week when Allcoat, quite understandably, resigned in disgust and publicised what had happened to him. Neither the judiciary nor government emerge well from this story.

The judicial hierarchy's decision to suspend Allcoat was precipitous and unworthy. There was no need to suspend him, even if it was felt that the unusual facts required further investigation. It must have been obvious that he was motivated by compassion, which is surely a desirable quality in a judge. Allcoat's action should have been applauded, not condemned.
The government failure is worse because it created the circumstances that led to this situation.

The criminal courts charge is designed to help with the cost of running the courts. While the concept is not objectionable, its implementation has been flawed. The judiciary are allowed no discretion; they must impose the charge, they cannot take account of the offender's means, and they cannot remit the charge for two years in most cases. This combination of limitations led to the situation which Allcoat faced.

The charge is another example of governments' lamentable tendency to remove or limit the discretion of judges. Many have resigned over the criminal courts charge specifically because they consider that they can no longer be true to their judicial oath to "do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm".

When legislation loses the support of those who apply it, the foundations of the rule of law begin to shake.

If you would like to sign a petition to bring pressure on the government to review the charge, visit: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/110048

This article first appeared in The Brief. 

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