An allegation of fare evasion is one of the most common interactions many people have with the criminal justice system. With the advent of technologies that allow people to ‘tap in’ with debit or credit cards, as opposed to buying a paper ticket or using a pre-paid card (such as the Oyster card in London) – it has probably never been easier, on certain modes of transport, to buy a ticket to travel.
Alongside this, the government has shifted the process for people who are accused of fare evasion so that it has never been easier for them to enter Guilty pleas online and in some areas of the country, via a new scheme called the Single Justice Procedure. The Single Justice Procedure is where a single magistrate deals with adult summary-only, non-imprisonable offences for “guilty” pleas and “proof in absence” cases. The magistrate sits with a legal advisor outside of a court room without the defendant or prosecutor being present, for cases such as speeding, vehicle excise duty and fare evasion. According to HM Courts and Tribunals Service, these cases account for about 850,000 of the total cases per annum.
There are, however, a multitude of circumstances in which someone may not have had a valid ticket for travel on a particular occasion but the wider reasons for this may mean that it is not in the public interest to prosecute them for a criminal offence. It is very difficult for people to know, without legal advice, whether their individual circumstances mean that such issues should be raised on their behalf instead of them being criminalised. Unfortunately, as things stand, it is unlikely to be viewed as being ‘in the interests of justice’ for such people to be granted Legal Aid, in order to support them to receive that advice.
In addition, many fare evasion cases are not brought by the state prosecutor, the Crown Prosecution Service, but by private prosecutors such as rail companies or transport bodies like Transport for London. These private prosecutors often seek their legal costs from the individual they are prosecuting. This can mean £225.00 legal fees being claimed from the accused person for a failure to purchase a £1.50 bus ticket.
In the drive for efficiency, the triple combo of the Single Justice Procedure, a lack of legal aid for individuals, and high legal fees being claimed by private prosecutors have meant that people are being penalised disproportionately and unnecessarily. These ‘under the radar’ injustices do not attract a lot of scrutiny or attention given the low level nature of the offences involved. However, in our view, the criminal justice system itself risks being undermined in the eyes of the public where people feel they are being are criminalised with a lack of substantial and significant scrutiny.