A Queensland lawyer says the state Government's new offender levy will create a "dangerous precedent" to treat courts as an ATM cash machine.
The Queensland Government has introduced a levy to be applied to any adult offender sentenced in a Queensland Court from 21 August, 2012. The Government said the purpose of the levy is to help pay for the cost of law enforcement and administration.
The levy, which is not an order of the court and does not form part of any sentence imposed by a judge or magistrate, is to be paid on each sentencing event whether or not a conviction is recorded. The offender is not able to appeal the imposition of the levy, however the levy will be removed if all convictions relating to the sentencing event are overturned on appeal.
Criminal defence lawyer Bill Potts said the Budget measure, which he said imposes a $100 or $300 fee on people pleading guilty or found guilty of a range of offences, should be feared as it was a pure revenue-raising measure and thus vulnerable to increases at any time at the Governmentâ€™s whim.
â€œThereâ€™s no suggestion the money will be used for rehabilitation programmes or drug treatment resources. Itâ€™s just a new variation of a cash grab and the fear is the courts will become a target every time the Government wants to rake in some more money.â€
Potts, a director of criminal law firm Potts Lawyers, said there was a mandatory penalty aspect to the offender fee he found disquieting. As well as any court-imposed penalty there was an additional fine imposed, regardless of whether the person incurring the fee had any ability to pay it.
The $100 levy will apply to people found guilty in the Magistrateâ€™s Court and the $300 levy will apply to those found guilty in the Supreme and District Courts. The levy will still apply regardless of whether a conviction is recorded.
â€œQuite often people appearing before the courts are cash-poor but if they donâ€™t pay this levy it is referred to the State Penalties Enforcement Registry which takes a very hardline attitude toward non-payment of fines.
â€œFailure to pay the extra fine could see the person facing stiffer fines or even jail time,â€ Potts said.
He urged Premier Campbell Newman and Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie to reconsider the offender levy, or at least give judges some discretion on imposing it.
â€œThe criminal justice system should not be treated as a user pays commercial entity. It is a service created to keep order for society, itâ€™s not designed as a revenue generating machine,â€ he said.
Potts said those incurring the extra penalty would include people on various traffic offences.
â€œWeâ€™re not talking hard line career criminals. This levy will hit some of the most vulnerable or people who through a momentary lapse find themselves being prosecuted. There is a trend by the political machine to demonise anyone coming before the courts as an excuse to empty their wallet.
â€œThey excuse it as a â€˜get tough on crimeâ€™ stance but this levy will not reduce crime in any way, itâ€™s just a cash grab,â€ Potts said.
â€œThe real fear is now they have started thereâ€™s a risk the State will increase the offender levy or create new fees every time they want to generate some cash. The Courts become just a big ATM machine. This is wrong and the whole idea should be urgently reconsidered,â€ Potts said.