THE crimes for which Leonard Vandenborn has been convicted and jailed were abhorrent and few would suggest that the 12-year sentence that he is now serving is either inappropriate or disproportionate. Nevertheless, there is a feature of his treatment by the judicial system which raises difficult issues.
Having lost his appeal against conviction for sex offences, Vandenborn was ordered to pay £190,000. This sum was categorised as a contribution towards the costs of the prosecution, but it is difficult not to regard it as something else as well – an additional penalty.
It is clearly within the court’s powers to make orders of this nature and it can be argued that they may serve the interests of natural justice. After all, had Vandenborn admitted his offences, the process of dealing with him would have been a far less costly exercise.
In spite of this, there were worrying features of the order in question. For example, the Court of Appeal judge noted that Vandenborn owns a ‘substantial’ house. Are we therefore to conclude that a wealthy person who is guilty of an offence can expect to be treated differently from someone of limited means? If this is the case, the concept of blind justice might need to be revisited and revised.
More disturbingly, a defendant’s perception of the treatment likely to be meted out at the end of a trial might lead to a higher incidence of guilty pleas – not because more people face up to their crimes, but because they fear the financial consequences of conviction as much as conviction itself.
There is, meanwhile, the possibility of what might be called the collateral damage caused by orders for costs. Even in circumstances where few would object to the full force of the law being brought to bear on an individual, the court should surely take into account the incidental impact on that individual’s family.
Few would object to the proceeds of crime principle being applied to confiscate the illicit profits of, say, drug dealing. Equally, few would object to costs being awarded after a defendant has been deliberately obstructive and has done his or her best to drag out court proceedings.
However, these special cases can be seen as exceptions to more general rules – that neither a person’s wealth nor the mere fact of entering a not guilty plea should influence the imposition of penalties.