‘Swift’ justice to become ‘norm’ in criminal cases
Dealing with criminal cases in 'hours and days' could become 'the norm' under government plans announced today.
Policing and criminal justice minister Nick Herbert published a white paper detailing proposals designed to speed up cases in the criminal justice system. Extended court sittings, increased use of video technology, and single magistrates sitting in community centres or police stations are among the measures outlined.
Building on responses adopted during last year’s summer riots, the government plans to trial more flexible court opening hours, including the introduction of Sunday sittings, and early morning and evening sittings.
The white paper also suggests enabling local communities to deal with anti-social behaviour and low-level offending through neighbourhood justice panels in 15 areas across the country.
These will use community representatives and restorative justice techniques in a bid to tackle problems early and prevent them escalating.
Herbert said: ‘During last year’s riots, we saw cases that normally take weeks and months being dealt with in just hours and days. We want this to become the norm, not the exception.
‘The criminal justice system must be more transparent and accountable to the local communities it services, so we are opening up the justice system and involving communities directly in resolving problem behaviour and low-level crimes.’
Richard Atkinson, chair of the Law Society Criminal Law Committee, voiced scepticism about the proposals.
He said: 'The Society has been at the forefront of urging improvements to the criminal justice system and we published our own proposals for this last year. We would support changes where they are appropriate. For example there is potential for there to be efficiency improvements arising from the increased use of prison to court video links.
However, we are concerned by the government’s obsession with speed and its apparent belief that speed and efficiency is one and the same thing.
In particular, we question whether there is any need for weekend courts at a time when the numbers of criminal cases are declining and when these proposals will cause problems for prisons and the availability of other professionals in the system. There will be significant costs at a time the government says there is no more money, including for defence practitioners who are mostly small businesses and do not have the same flexibility as large employers, such as the Crown Prosecution Service and the court service.
'The fact that there has been no adequate consultation and discussion with defence practitioners about the proposals suggests that, yet again, government is ignoring the only people in the system who see cases through from start to finish.
We are keen to discuss these with government, but it is mistaken if it believes that these changes can be achieved in a way which is cost-neutral and it is disappointing that it has not taken the opportunity to look at other improvements which are likely to have a much greater effect on efficiency than a headline-grabbing initiative on court sittings.'
Max Hill QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), warned that cost-cutting must not stand in the way of justice.
He said: 'The Criminal Bar Association endorses the government’s view that the criminal courts need to become more efficient, and we welcome many of the proposals contained within this white paper, but others risk undermining justice and due process.
'We are particularly concerned about the increased presumption that cases will be run in the Magistrates’ Courts based purely on the financial value of the case. This is a blunt instrument which may not properly reflect the severity of the offence, and demonstrates the government’s commitment to cheap justice.
'We cautiously welcome efforts to increase transparency by allowing cameras into courtrooms for sentencing remarks. This must, however, be carefully monitored to ensure that tight judicial scrutiny is maintained and that the parties in the case are consenting.
'Late and weekend court sittings enabled the criminal justice system to manage its vastly increased workload following the summer riots, but longer hours are not the answer to inefficiency. They place a strain on the courts and on court workers, and may lead to delays and poor outcomes.'
Meanwhile, as the government proposes extending court sittings, the Ministry of Justice’s annual report showed that HM Courts and Tribunal Service has culled its staff by more than 1,000 over the last year. Published this week, the report shows that permanent staff numbers at HMCTS fell from 20,778 to 19,655.
The full details of the government’s ‘Swift and Sure Justice’ proposals, can be found on the MoJ website.