A mass court observation project which sat in on more than 1,100 hearings has reported that magistrates’ courts ‘often fall short’, with courtwatchers ‘shocked by what they perceived to be inefficiency’.

Drawing on the findings of its CourtWatch London project, Transform Justice has produced recommendations for the Ministry of Justice, judiciary, Sentencing Council, HM Courts & Tribunal Service and Crown Prosecution Service.

The report, The Wild West? Courtwatching in London magistrates’ courts, covered defendants, court efficiency and outcomes.

Recommendations to the MoJ include: an independent inquiry into the impact of video hearings; ceasing video links for defendants in hearings, excepting case management hearings, until that inquiry begins; commissioning research into the main causes of court delays; and abolishing the means test in the magistrates’ court for all those charged with an imprisonable offence.

Transform Justice also recommends discouraging the use of court fines, encouraging rehabilitative sanctions, discontinuing ‘very old cases’ to reduce listings, and encouraging police to offer more out-of-court resolutions for lower-level cases.

Of the 1,055 hearings where an outcome was recorded, 22% were adjourned. Courtwatchers found ‘many delays’ were attributable to lawyers or others not having the information necessary or possessing conflicting information.

The report said: ‘They felt lawyers were often unprepared, particularly prosecutors. Courtwatchers felt that much of prosecutors’ inefficiency derived from having to deal with too many cases. Defence lawyers’ caseload also caused delays, particularly if the duty solicitor had a lot of clients.’

Disclosure was another cause of delay, as was technology. Courtwatchers ‘appreciated that the delays “caused” by lawyers were frequently outside their control’.

The report added: ‘Courtwatchers were shocked by what they perceived to be the inefficiency of courts. They felt their own valuable volunteering time was wasted, particularly if they only went for the morning session and hardly observed any hearings. Our courtwatchers also felt some court time was wasted on hearings which should not have happened at all – either because too much time had elapsed since the original offence or because the offence was too trivial to be worth dealing with in a court.’

Of the hearings observed, 15% (165) included an unrepresented defendant. Representation was lowest for trials (21% unrepresented) and highest for bail and remand hearings (7% unrepresented).

The report acknowledged ‘court professionals and magistrates were usually patient, understanding and helpful’ to unrepresented defendants. It added: ‘Most courtwatchers described defendants being severely disadvantaged by their lack of representation. Some appeared completely unprepared for the hearing or unfamiliar with law. Others made decisions which were not in their best interest.’

More than a fifth of hearings (230) involved a defendant for whom English was not a first language. An interpreter was not provided in 104 of those cases. Defendants who needed interpreters were ‘some of the worst served by the court’, the report said.

The report added: ‘One defence lawyer was overheard telling their client that getting an interpreter would take so long that it was better to proceed without one.’

One courtwatcher reported a judge’s attempt to communicate with a defendant ‘by typing up a transcript on Google Translate and using the text-to-speech feature, but the audio on her laptop would not work, and the client did not understand the written transcript, meaning he likely had little understanding of what happened during the hearing’.

The report said: ‘Some examples of courts’ attempts to proceed in the absence of an interpreter – through Google Translate and “speaking loudly” – would be laughable if they did not represent a serious breach of someone’s basic right to understand what was happening at such a life-changing moment.’

It added: ‘Courts were mostly kind to defendants, but where the defendant’s right to effectively participate in the hearing faced off against the system’s desire to get through the caseload for the day, the latter often triumphed.’

Racial bias was also considered by the courtwatchers. A ‘few…perceived different treatment of defendants based on their ethnicity’. A courtwatcher said they observed the same judge deal with similar cases. A white defendant, who had breached a community order for a sexual offence, was fined, while a black defendant, who breached a stalking protection order to collect his belongings after calling the police to inform them, was remanded in custody until his sentencing.

Sanctions handed down by magistrates were described as ‘ineffective or counterproductive’, with fines and costs made against people of ‘severely limited means’ or ‘punitive sentences given to people with serious drug or mental health problems which did nothing to address those issues’.

Tom Franklin, chair executive of the Magistrates Association, said: ‘We support the principle of CourtWatch and are grateful to the work that the 82 volunteer courtwatchers have done, helping to shine a light on the working of the magistrates’ courts.’

The Magistrates Association ‘would very much support’ the report’s observations of how the court experience could be improved and some of the recommendations proposed by Transform Justice ‘very much chime with our views’, Franklin said.

He added: ‘We are pleased to see that that courtwatchers felt magistrates’ and judges’ decisions and sentences were sensible and considered, and that many court professionals and magistrates were understanding and helpful towards unrepresented defendants.’