Transforming Summary Justice should make criminal proceedings more efficient.
Sir Brian Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings (see Gazette, 23 January) should be read by all who are interested in the future of criminal justice in England and Wales. The president of the Queen’s Bench Division emphasises the need to get it right first time. He specifically commends Transforming Summary Justice (TSJ), which is to be introduced across the country later this year.
In June 2014, Mr Justice Jeremy Baker and others held open meetings across the country to discuss proposals for TSJ. Well over 1,000 people attended those meetings, including many defence solicitors.
The central proposal is that any contested criminal trial in a magistrates’ court should be fully case managed at the first hearing, and take place at the next hearing. Almost everybody in the system agrees with this principle, although some express scepticism as to whether it will happen.
Arrangements to introduce TSJ are well under way. Although the principles are simple, a very considerable amount of work is necessary to ensure the success of the initiative. This work includes – for example – training thousands of police officers on the information required before the first hearing; introducing Not Guilty Anticipated Plea (NGAP) courts for anticipated not guilty pleas; and Judicial College training.
One obvious difficulty is the strain on resources of the Crown Prosecution Service which, for a while at least, must prepare cases under the old system, where trials are reviewed shortly before the hearing date, and under the new system, where trials are reviewed before the first NGAP court.
Moreover, in many areas there is a long delay between the first hearing and the first available trial date. This results in a very large caseload, and one that is hard to manage on existing resources.
To help, additional resources have been made available to reduce the existing trial backlog. A national trial blitz has been initiated by the judiciary, with the active encouragement of the lord chief justice and the senior presiding judge. The trial blitz will start in London on 13 April, and will then move to Manchester, to Kent, and to other parts of the country where requests have been received from local Judicial Business Groups. Not all areas wish to participate. Some have no significant trial backlog, while others are approaching any delay with local initiatives.
The additional resources involve providing three courts (or in areas where that is not possible, two courts) working together over a period of time – in London it is six weeks – with additional prosecutors and additional sittings by judges or magistrates.
More detailed information will be made available to local solicitors as the preparations for the trial blitz progress in your area. We hope to be able to provide a dedicated Crown Prosecution Service email address, and a dedicated address for case progression at the court, to reduce some of the frustrations in communication that now exist in some areas. It is not intended to bring forward existing listings, at least without the full agreement of the parties. The trial blitz will concentrate on shorter and less complicated trials.
These are difficult times for all in criminal justice, as we strive to maintain a quality system of justice despite very significant budget cuts. These have affected every part of our work. The judiciary in the magistrates’ courts recognise, and are grateful for, the professionalism of those advocates who appear regularly before us, although perhaps we do not say so often enough.
It is very much to be hoped that, once TSJ has settled in, it will result in improvements in efficiency that will reduce the frustrations we all recognise. If it does, then the main beneficiary will be justice, and a restored pride in the work we do together.
Howard Riddle is senior district judge (chief magistrate)