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Leicester magistrate quits over 'foolish' court charge

Published 29/09/2015

Nigel Allcoat sat at Leicester Magistrates' Court
Nigel Allcoat sat at Leicester Magistrates' Court

A magistrate has resigned in protest over a "foolish" court charge which saw a penniless asylum seeker forced to pay £180.

Nigel Allcoat, of Burbage, Leicestershire, served as a JP for 16 years and offered to pay towards the levy imposed on a man in his 20s.

The fine - called the criminal court charge - was introduced by the coalition government to help towards the running of the courts system and sees anyone convicted of a crime forced to pay a fee.

Courts have no discretion over the charges and, when Mr Allcoat attempted to pay towards the convict's costs as a "humanitarian" act at Leicester Magistrates' Court three weeks ago, he was suspended and an investigation launched.

He said: "It was a young man in his 20s from Europe who has been ordered to pay this charge and was brought in front of me as he hadn't paid.

"He was seeking asylum, which means it would have been breaking the law if he had been found with money or working, so how was he to pay this charge?"

Asylum seekers are given top-up cards which have £35 added to their balance each week and can only be spent in certain stores.

Mr Allcoat, a world-class musician, said: "It was ridiculous. The legal adviser asked him if he could pay £5 a week, but £5 a week out of £35 is a hole big enough to sink the Titanic.

"We were at an impasse and the situation was becoming quite intolerable, so I reached into my pocket and offered to pay something just to satisfy the computer.

"Then it was like all hell had broken loose. The legal adviser went and came back and asked if he could pay £2 a week. It was like a reverse auction - if he left again, would he have returned with an offer of £0 a week?

"I am known for being facetious, but I am clear about what is right and what is wrong. My offer was simply humanitarian, otherwise this man would have appeared and reappeared in front of the courts for non-payment, knowing that on any occasion he could be sent to prison for this."

Mr Allcoat, 65, said the asylum seeker had previously relied on the support of a friend to pay a £60 victim surcharge, a gesture which the former magistrate described as "generous".

But when the man failed to keep up payments on the penalty, he was brought back before the bench where Mr Allcoat was sitting.

Mr Allcoat was suspended from his duties and investigated by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee.

He notified them of his intention to step down as a magistrate, with his resignation accepted this week.

He said: "I just can't belong to an organisation that puts people in foolish situations like this. This charge has never been thought through.

"It was slipped in to the legal system just at the end of the last government without any real thinking as to the consequences. It's like something out of Yes Minister.

"It can't be waived, it's not means-tested, it can't be remitted. You can't do anything about it as a magistrate. It's utterly foolish."

It was reported by the Independent in September that more than 50 magistrates had resigned in protest over the criminal courts charge.

The head of the Magistrates' Association, Richard Monkhouse, told the newspaper: "It is deeply worrying we are losing such numbers of experienced magistrates.

"We do not believe the vast majority of charges will ever be recovered because your average defendant cannot pay, (so) we're reiterating our call for the Lord Chancellor to grant an urgent review and to give magistrates discretion on its case-by-case application, including means-testing."

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