When casually reading a Magistrates’ Association (MA) newsletter recently, I was struck by the idea of an ‘economics of justice’. So confused was I by the meaning of this phrase that I decided to combine the definitions of ‘justice’ and ‘economics’ to find out what an economics of justice might mean. I came up with ‘just behaviour and/or treatment of people achieved through the production, consumption and transfer of wealth’. Call me wildly naive, but economics, as a field of expertise, doesn’t strike me as the most appropriate tool for administering the application of just behaviour and treatment.

In the last five months, 50 magistrates across the UK have resigned in protest of this application of economics to the judicial process. In the aforementioned newsletter, the author attempts to demonstrate the ludicrousness of this viewpoint, writing that “applying the laws of economics, regardless of justice, demonstrates that as costs increase, consumption lessens”.

In April this year our government introduced a court charge for all offences committed. The fee starts at £150 for a ‘guilty’ plea for summary offences (no right to trial by jury), rising to £180 for more serious offences. This is in addition to fines, prosecution charges and victim’s compensation. But this surcharge increases to £520 for summary and £1,000 for more serious offences if convicted after a ‘not guilty’ plea. There is now a financial incentive to plead guilty over not guilty. 93% of MA members disagree with the new charge and 84% think it should be means tested. “Our members believe this goes to the very heart of fairness in the system,” said MA chairman Richard Monkhouse.

If, for example, a man on benefits is charged with the theft of a sandwich and pleads ‘not guilty’, he would go to court for trial. If found guilty, his fine would be around £80, the CPS (prosecution) costs would be £85 and the victim’s surcharge £20, plus the additional court charge of £1,000, brought in earlier this year, bringing the total owed for the theft of a sandwich to £1,185. The magistrates are able to remove the CPS costs and the fine, but the other costs are fixed in law. The court could order the fine to be taken from his benefits at £5 per week, taking four and a half years to pay off. For the poor and vulnerable people of the UK, arguably those most likely to commit a shoplifting offence, it means the courts are forced to impose a charge which is often far in excess of 100 times the value of what was taken.

Some call economics a science, but it seems to me that the economics of justice, unlike science, has a distinctly ideological basis. Often when we say ‘economics’, what we mean is the application of the currently accepted model of economics, namely neoliberalism. The causal relationship between crime and poverty is in no doubt. With this legislation, we face the possibility that as a society we are directly creating the conditions for further criminal behaviour through the judicial process itself.

A real life example is the case of magistrate Nigel Allcoat, who earlier this year was suspended and subsequently resigned after paying £40 of the court charges of a destitute asylum seeker. Quoted in the Guardian earlier this year, he said, “What can someone do in that situation, when you tell them they need to find £180 or they will go to prison, but they cannot work? They could steal the money? Commit another crime? That would cost the state even more money […] It costs more to keep someone in prison than to send a boy to Eton.”

If the aim is to transfer wealth and (arguably) power, from poor to rich, then the economics of justice makes perfect sense, as does our current policy of the economics of health and the privatisation of services which were once free at the point of use. The economics of justice is a very real method of ensuring that those who are without wealth are penalised, better controlled and, ultimately, at a significant disadvantage. 

James Lock