We are seeing an increasing number of initiatives from ministers and civil servants to rush cases through the lower courts at breakneck speed. It is axiomatic that justice delayed is justice denied, but that is balanced by the idea that justice rushed denies justice.
There are good reasons why defendants should physically appear before a court, especially if a sentencing exercise is being carried out; virtual courts make the serious matter of a criminal court hearing more like TV, and that demeans the criminal justice system and public confidence in that system. Evening and weekend sittings, and sittings in community centres, are not the solution to delays. Why can’t the courts deal with cases during normal hours? What happens to people who want to spend their non-working time with friends and family? Why shouldn’t criminal cases be dealt with in a ‘proper’ courtroom?
The night court system did not work in London several years ago. I represented a defendant who wanted to enter a guilty plea to ‘get it over and done with’. The district judge advised him to speak to me as duty solicitor and he was subsequently acquitted. A serious miscarriage of justice was avoided. That would not have happened had there been no access to a solicitor in court.
The costs of running this new system - staff, buildings, overtime, defence lawyers - have not been revealed. Will a saving of ‘50p’ translate into a cost of £500 when errors are discovered and defendants commence appeals against sentence or conviction? Every defendant charged with any offence other than a very minor criminal offence must have the right to independent legal advice from a solicitor. It matters not whether the defendant has admitted the offence - without being advised about the legal technicalities and evidence required to prove a case, and consequences of a plea, a defendant may be in an impossible position.
Evidence must be properly considered. It is facile to say that a defendant knows whether they are guilty or not. For better or worse, the criminal law is complex and a defendant should be able to receive proper legal advice; more so if a defendant has drug or alcohol problems, or speaks a foreign language. A guilty plea for expedience may result in serious injustice and that is, after all, what the judiciary must be on the alert to avoid.
Beacon to the world
The current proposals look fine on paper, but our criminal justice system has been held up as a beacon to the rest of the world and we interfere with confidence in that system at our peril. It seems the justice secretary now accepts that the defendant is at the centre of the criminal justice system - a spectacular volte-face. Appealing to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ (and that is the right term) displayed by all parties dealing with last year’s riot cases is not the answer. Those circumstances were exceptional and not a blueprint for the future. In any event, a number of aspects of those cases have been criticised by myself and others far higher qualified to judge.
Moving on to single justices dealing with cases. Why? A justice of the peace is, by role, not technically qualified to deal with any cases other than emergency bail applications - if a single justice in these fast-track courts, why district judges? Is this a dumbing down or a cost-saving exercise?
I wonder quite who dreamt up these proposals. Obviously, not a lawyer who has ever spent a day as duty solicitor in a police station or magistrates’ court. Perhaps they are a cost-cutting exercise. Justice on the cheap, as Ian Kelcey said, cheapens justice. One must never sacrifice justice on the twin altars of speed and expediency. Those should be our watchwords and the new eye-catching proposals do not even begin to address those ideals.
Of course that expert senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby GCB, KBE, MVO, MA (Oxon), expressed things rather differently: ‘You can’t put the nation’s interest at risk just because of some silly sentimentality about justice.’ Says it all really, doesn’t it?
Julian Young is senior partner of central London firm Julian Young & Co and a solicitor-advocate. The views expressed are personal