Wednesday 21 October 2015

A case of begging ~ Criminal Court Charge ~ Speech by Lady Hale

Steffan Rowland Thomas - aged 19 - was seen by a PCSO sitting in the doorway of an empty shop in Swansea.  He was asking passers-by for money.  The matter came before Swansea Magistrates' Court where Thomas entered a guilty plea.  The court imposed a conditional discharge for 12 months but also imposed the Criminal Courts Charge (£150), a "victims surcharge" (£15) but declined to impose prosecution costs given Thomas' absence of means.  Read the report in the South Wales Evening Post

He was represented in court and, no doubt, his guilty plea was entered after appropriate advice. It was said that Thomas had no fixed address and had acted out of desperation.  Upon arrest, Thomas had said that he did not know that what he did was an offence.  It is reported that Thomas now lives with his grandfather.  

When begging comes before the courts it is usually brought under the Vagrancy Act 1824 s.3
Given its antiquated wording, here is an enactment that ought to be repealed and replaced by some up-to-date provision.

There is no doubt that begging is a social problem just as it was in the years following the Napoleonic Wars when the Vagrancy Act 1824 was enacted.  In recent times, there has been a noticeable increase in prosecutions - see The Guardian 30th November 2014 (Begging prosecutions increase across England and Wales).  One may wonder whether it was truly in the public interest to prosecute Mr Thomas but we only have a press report to go on.

The court imposed a conditional discharge.  Discharges may be imposed when the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 section 12 applies.

Where a court by or before which a person is convicted of an offence ....... is of the opinion, having regard to the circumstances including the nature of the offence and the character of the offender, that it is inexpedient to inflict punishment, the court may make an order either—

(a) discharging him absolutely; or

(b) if the court thinks fit, discharging him subject to the condition that he commits no offence during such period, not exceeding three years from the date of the order, as may be specified in the order.

If Mr Thomas were to be convicted of an offence during the 12 month period of his conditional discharge then he may also be sentenced for the offence for which he received the discharge (section 13).

Section 14 is important in that a conviction of an offence for which an order is made under section 12 above discharging the offender absolutely or conditionally shall be deemed not to be a conviction for any purpose other than the purposes of the proceedings in which the order is made and of any subsequent proceedings which may be taken against the offender under section 13 above.  On this section see R v Patel [2006] EWCA Crim 2689.

The Criminal Courts Charge (previous post of 30th July for details) was imposed as required by law.  If a defendant exercises his right to have the case tried and is then found guilty the charge is significantly higher.  This is seen as placing an incentive on individuals to plead guilty.  The charge has also resulted in some Magistrates resigning.  See The Independent 8th September.  The House of Lords passed a Regret Motion passed condemning the charge (previous post 15th October).

Lady Hale - Justice of the Supreme Court - spoke at Gray's Inn and referred to the Criminal Courts Charge - Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?   She said:  

"The importance of affording a fair trial to persons accused of crime is not always obvious. All
too often, our trial processes seem to the great British public to result in the acquittal of the
guilty. We do, of course, have an obligation to make such processes fair to the alleged victims as well as to the alleged perpetrators. But, as it seems to me, a large part of the importance of a fair criminal process is to reassure the law abiding: if we obey the law, we shall not be punished. If there is a risk of arbitrary and unjust punishment, what incentive is there to obey the law? In this connection, therefore, it is important to scrutinise any incentive to persons accused of crime to admit their guilt to police officers, or to plead guilty in court, in order to ensure that they do not place improper or unfair pressure on the innocent. An example is the recently introduced criminal court charge, levied on those who are convicted after having pleaded not guilty. I make no comment on whether this is, or is not, improper or unfair. My point is only that such pressures to plead guilty have always been
rightly treated with suspicion in our common law world."


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