Will the latest initiative to make magistrates’ courts more efficient actually work? Jonathan Rayner gauges opinion.
Transforming Summary Justice (TSJ) is the unwittingly pejorative name of a joint criminal justice system initiative, that includes the participation of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), to make magistrates’ courts more efficient. The CPS seems unaware that ‘summary justice’ has connotations of justice made faster by omitting formalities required by law, which is no justice at all, of course. It also has overtones of vigilante law.
Not so, protests Barry Hughes, CPS national lead for TSJ and chief Crown prosecutor for south-west England. The new initiative, he insists, ‘will bring real benefits for victims and witnesses. Our aim is simple and one that we all want to achieve: swifter justice, fewer hearings and more effective trials’.
Sadly, the criminal law solicitors who spoke to the Gazette do not share Hughes’ enthusiasm. In fact, they are universally sceptical about an initiative they characterise variously as ‘an under-resourced bureaucratic exercise’ and ‘impractical’.
Saving time and money through having fewer trials, while still bringing more defendants to justice, sounds a consummation devoutly to be wished, but how does TSJ hope to achieve all this?
A CPS spokesman explains: ‘TSJ involves listing cases where a guilty plea is anticipated – known as GAP cases – in dedicated magistrates’ courts 14 days after charge and dealing with as many as possible at that first hearing. Those courts are expected to get through a higher number of cases [than would courts not specifically dedicated to GAP cases].’
NGAP cases, which are cases where a not-guilty plea is anticipated, are to be listed in dedicated case management courts 28 days after charge, with the aim of much greater review and preparation happening before the first hearing. ‘By getting much of the case management done at the first hearing,’ he says, ‘cases can proceed to an effective trial without interim hearings.’ Experienced prosecutors will ‘frontload’ what they need to do before the first hearing and speak to the defence to find out what the issues are.
Says Hughes: ‘By trials being heard more quickly, victims will see swifter justice, and suffer less anxiety and inconvenience, because more trials will go ahead on the day.’
Law Society criminal law committee chair Richard Atkinson (pictured), however, has an ambivalent attitude towards TSJ. ‘At least it’s a practitioner-based initiative,’ he says, ‘signed up to by the CPS, police, courts and defence lawyers. Previous attempts to make the process more efficient were top-down ideas conceived by the senior judiciary and imposed on practitioners.’
So will TSJ achieve its objectives? ‘Unlikely,’ Atkinson replies. ‘The CPS is under-resourced and the Treasury is not promising extra money. The CPS will find itself in the transitional period between the old and new ways of working, continuing to firefight at the expense of carrying out the early case management required by TSJ.
‘There is also a role for the police in TSJ, but training is an area of policing where cuts are having a big impact. The new scheme will be massively over-stretched and there is a real danger that the whole thing will collapse.’
Does Atkinson have a view on the two-tier system of one court for guilty pleas and another for not-guilty pleas? He responds: ‘Less than 50% of people detained in police stations are represented by a lawyer, which means that most have to decide what to plead without having had legal advice. Some may bow to pressure from the arresting officer and plead guilty. Others may plead guilty even if they are innocent of any offence rather than risk paying the new set of criminal court charges that, since 13 April, can be as high as £1,000 in the magistrates’ court.’
The Gazette next speaks to Bruce Reid, a criminal law consultant at London firm Steel & Shamash. He believes the new initiative is ‘just tweaking’ the existing order. ‘The earth is not moving at all. We wait with bated breath, of course, but TSJ looks like a bureaucratic exercise whose only faint hope of succeeding is if people have less work to do and more time to commit to it. Without disparaging my CPS colleagues, they are overworked and underpaid and, frankly, won’t be able to cope.’
Another member of the Law Society criminal law committee, who asked not to be named, was not quite so dismissive of TSJ’s potential to achieve results. ‘TSJ is one of many attempts over the years to improve casework efficiency in the magistrates’ courts,’ he tells the Gazette.
‘The problem has previously been seen as intractable, whereas TSJ appears to be the most promising scheme yet. But we must see TSJ in the context of budget cuts at the CPS. So many local offices have been closed that most areas now rely on a central hub for case preparation. Will that help or hinder the frontloading that TSJ requires? Will it make the CPS more or less efficient?’
The final word goes to the CPS spokesman: ‘We know we need to do more with less. TSJ, through fewer and more effective hearings, will ensure that less effort will be required to get the same results.’
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer