An autumn trial ‘blitz’ and more vaccinated magistrates on the bench are part of an 'ambitious' action plan to get the justice system back on track, the Gazette can reveal.
The Judiciary and HM Courts & Tribunals Service set out details in a document entitled Magistrates’ Criminal Courts 5-Point Plan: Recovery Ambitions for Adult & Youth Courts.
The action plan, which the Gazette has seen, is designed to ‘safely restore court listing and timings to pre-pandemic levels at the earliest opportunity and at the latest by 31 December 2021. This is ambitious but achievable assuming the roadmap for lifting current restrictions remain on track’.
The action plan aims to: improve on pre-Christmas listing and disposal rates; return to 'TSJ' charging timings by July; reduce trial waiting times through ‘trial blitzes’; continue to maximise on court capacity with flexible listing; and return to normal magistrates’ arrangements by July.
The document states that in the first eight weeks of 2021, average weekly receipts rose by 6.1% to 23,336. ‘At the same time, in response to reduction in listing loadings and the need to reduce footfall in the magistrates’ courts, average weekly disposals fell by 8.5% to 22,686'. The total volume of outstanding work on 20 December was 466,445, rising to 477,811 by the end of February. The 6.1% increase in receipts is attributed to an increase in summary motoring cases.
Under the plan, each court would be assessed with a view to returning listing levels to pre-Christmas arrangements or better from April so that non-Single Justice Procedure disposals return to at least 15,650 cases per week. A newly-created national taskforce will work with police ‘to reduce the number of youth offenders whose first appearance is before an adult court’.
An interim charging protocol introduced in response to the pandemic would cease to apply after 1 July.
A national trial blitz would take place in the autumn. The CPS would review outstanding cases awaiting trial through trial ‘surgeries’. Priority would be given to cases that have not yet been considered by a reviewing lawyer. At least one court in each region would hold 'triage lists' where matters set for trial are reviewed by a district judge or deputy. Cases where a trial is still required would be listed in a trial ‘blitz’ court.
More than 100 additional Saturday courts were sitting prior to Christmas, but the document states that the number has since fallen ‘largely because of a shortage of volunteer legal advisers’. Under the plan, additional courts or Single Justice Procedure sessions would take place between April and June. Additional Saturday courts ‘should wherever possible avoid the need for additional duty solicitors, probation officers, or dock cover. No additional courts should be listed without prior engagement with the agencies that are likely to be affected’.
Magistrate rotas have been drawn up on the basis of moving towards three-strong benches from April to September.
The document states: ‘We will aim to sit as many benches of three as we can by mid-May. This will be enabled by the increased use of plexi-glass, and the national vaccine programme. As 82% of magistrates are aged over 50, they will have been offered a vaccine by mid-April, and those vaccinated should have developed a good level of immunity by mid-May and be less likely to transmit the virus to others.’
Latest figures published by HMCTS show that the number of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court was 476,451 on 21 March. The pre-Covid baseline is 407,129.
Justice campaigner Penelope Gibbs called plans for more Single Justice Procedure sessions an 'expedient but unjust' move. 'Criminal SJP charges are sent out via snail mail, no one knows if defendants receive them, most defendants do not respond and they are then convicted in their absence by one magistrate sitting alone at home,’ she said.