As last summer’s riots proved, dealing with cases quickly sends a powerful message
Daily Telegraph, 12 July 2012, link.
It is a basic principle of justice that it should be delivered without delay. Magna Carta asserted that “to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied, especially to the victims of crime.
Yet our justice system routinely tolerates delay. On average, almost five months elapse between offence and sentence being passed in a magistrates’ court. Complex cases understandably take time to prepare. But the large majority are relatively minor, or even uncontested. There’s no reason why they can’t be dealt with more quickly.
A year ago, in response to the riots, this is precisely what happened. Police, prosecutors and courts worked together – and offenders were brought to justice within days, sometimes even hours. The speed and certainty of the system’s response sent a powerful message to offenders and the public alike. Afterwards, the Prime Minister rightly asked why this approach could not be the norm. So today I am launching a White Paper that sets out the clearest ambition: that justice should routinely be swift and sure.
We need to start by asking why the wheels of justice grind so slowly. One study of magistrates’ courts showed that cases took an average of 15 weeks from start to finish, yet involved only six hours of actual work. Fewer than half of all trials go ahead on the scheduled date. What would happen if airlines were run like that?
We need not only to improve the management of cases, but to challenge the system’s culture. Too many cases are prepared for trials that never happen, or go to crown court unnecessarily. Procedures can be changed without compromising the right to jury trial – for example, courts are already saving weeks of time by discouraging last-minute guilty pleas.
Last year, I met a police officer who had to waste time photocopying files for court. While the rest of the world has embraced email, criminal justice has retained an archaic love of paper. Now, however, evidence is being sent by digital file, and every crown prosecutor has access to a tablet device to present cases in court. Similarly, the police can waste hours hanging around courts. So we’ve begun to enable officers to give evidence from their stations by video link, freeing them up for other duties until the case is heard.
After the riots, the chairman of the Magistrates’ Association suggested that courts could open for longer, including evenings and weekends. So we’re piloting flexible sittings. There’s been some criticism from lawyers, but justice should be administered in the public interest, not for the convenience of professionals.
Justice should also be sure. Those tried after the riots had already committed an average of 11 crimes each – 20,000 offences in total. We need to grip offenders from the earliest point, setting clear boundaries and dealing with their underlying problems before they
slide into ever more serious criminality. Effective programmes to address offenders’ mental health and addiction problems are important. But so is the certainty that offending will always have consequences. When criminals fail to pay fines or to turn up for unpaid work, not only is public confidence undermined, but they are sent entirely the wrong signal.
So as well as making community sentences more robust, and toughening up the enforcement of fines, we are introducing Neighbourhood Justice Panels across the country, where low-level offenders will make amends to their victims and repair the damage.
Labour’s idea of summary justice was to set targets that encouraged police officers to issue penalty notices. Punishments such as cautions can be useful with minor offending, enabling the police to exercise their discretion. But on-the-spot fines and cautions must also be appropriate. They have sometimes been used wrongly, for instance when repeat offenders aren’t sent to court. In the process, magistrates have felt marginalised – yet they have a historic role in community justice that should be greatly valued. Now, magistrates will scrutinise the use of out-of-court disposals, and police officers will apply a new “justice test” when considering how to deal with offences. We are also making the radical proposal that magistrates should be able to deal swiftly with low-level cases where guilt is admitted, by dispensing justice in community centres or by video link.
It is also a fundamental principle of justice that it is open. So we are publishing information about police, court and prison performance, and we will broadcast certain court proceedings. The next step is the more widespread naming of offenders online, so communities have confidence that justice has been done.
To be a victim of a crime, even a minor one, is a horrible thing. We should not make it worse through inexcusable delays in bringing offenders to justice. The sooner criminals face the consequences of their actions, the lower the chance of their harming people again.
From a so-called “system” that actually operated in silos, we are building one where police, prosecution and courts work together more effectively. From November, elected police and crime commissioners will help to forge this change, and, with a new responsibility for victims, will ensure that crime is tackled effectively and the cycle of re-offending broken. None of these reforms will compromise historic rights or important principles of justice. Rather, the reverse: justice must be swift, sure and seen to be done, or it is not done at all.
Nick Herbert is Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice