Magistrate pays destitute asylum seeker’s court fine, quits over suspension to speak out

© Jason Reed JIR / CN
A senior magistrate who attempted to pay £40 towards a destitute asylum seeker’s court fine has resigned from his position after being suspended by authorities for the act of kindness.

Nigel Allcoat, who has been a magistrate for 15 years, expressed deep despair at growing fines and costs the state had foisted on the asylum seeker. 

“As a magistrate, my job is to prevent more crime, but now the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) would have me sent to traitor’s gate,” he told the Guardian.

The 65-year-old judge, who is also a professional organist, said the asylum seeker had appeared before him last month, having defaulted on a previous fine.

In addition to the fine, the destitute young man was expected to hand over £180 in mandatory court charges, under legislation introduced by ex-justice secretary Chris Grayling.

The young asylum seeker had been allocated just £35 per week to use on a top-up card in special shops, but was not authorized to look for any form of work. Having owed a £60 victim surcharge in June, a sympathetic man who runs a burger stall paid the fee. The small business owner also fed the asylum seeker when he was destitute. Likewise, Allcoat attempted to offer the young man financial help.

Speaking to the Guardian, the magistrate said he was seriously affected by pictures he saw of refugees facing riot police in Hungary earlier this month.

“These people have travelled for hundreds of miles to reach us, I wanted to show what British justice meant, to show him the character of this country is actually compassionate,” he said.

Allcoat, who was previously a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, condemned Britain’s legal system, saying it had reached an impasse.

He said the law in Britain could drive an innocent person to commit a criminal act against their will to pay money they don’t have.

“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?” he said.

“They could steal the money? Commit another crime? That would cost the state even more money to have him put in prison. It costs more to keep someone in prison than to send a boy to Eton.”

Allcoat said he had no background knowledge of the asylum seeker’s circumstances, but made the decision to pay the fine after discovering his name listed on computer records.

“It was spontaneous, but I had £40 in my shirt pocket and thought: ‘What if I chipped in? If a burger stall owner can?’” he said.

“The lady standing next to me also wanted to pay, though she had left her handbag in the retirement room.”

Allcoat was suspended after offering to pay the fine, pending an official inquiry. However, he officially resigned so he could speak out on the issue. Despite his decision to step down, he told the Guardian he misses being a magistrate.

The criminal courts charge, which has proved controversial since its inception, was implemented in April under the previous Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. The government defends the measure, arguing it ensures convicted offenders contribute towards the costs of running Britain's criminal justice system.

At the time of its implementation, the penalty sparked the resignation of a group of experienced magistrates who were disgusted by the fine.

“We were up in arms at this legislation,” Allcoat said. “It is the only fine which is not means tested. It is completely wrong, ill thought through and I hope this small act makes some contribution towards it coming back to haunt those who passed it.”