Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Clarke's Court Closure Consultation

The Ministry of Justice has announced that it is considering closing 103 magistrates' courts in England and Wales. Magistrates Courts deal with around 95% of all criminal cases in England and Wales, i.e. most criminal cases. There are a huge number of cases coming through these courts. Here are some ideas as to how to reduce the number of cases coming through the courts:
(a) reduce the eye-watering number of acts deemed crimes in England and Wales;
(b) raise the age of criminal responsibility to, say, 14;
(c) roll out some progressive alternatives to the court process, such as Restorative Justice and maybe aim this particularly at youths;
(d) impose measures aimed at closing the gap between the rich and poor (it's an oldie but a goodie).
I could go on, but I won't, because the fact is these ideas are hardly new, but no one with any power to do anything seems to listen. Whatever measure you go for, what is obvious is that there will continue to be large numbers of criminal cases coming through the courts until something along the lines of the above is done.

So, what to do first? Reduce the number of cases coming through the courts or reduce the number of courts? Clearly, Ken likes to put the cart before the horse.

It is true that some courts are smaller than others and some get more cases coming through them than others. However, I suspect that this is largely to do with poor direction of traffic. After all, many Magistrates Courts are, on the contrary, regularly over-listed. It is fair to say that a reasonable number of trials unfortunately do not go ahead as planned due to last minute problems such as witnesses not turning up, prosecution papers not being ready, important documents mysteriously materialising out of nowhere which should have been served months earlier, defendants going awol, or indeed guilty pleas being entered on the day of trial due to last minute negotiations. Not all of these are avoidable. However, they are all unpredictable and do not necessarily warrant rabid over-listing.

For example, I recently witnessed one court which had 5 trials listed to go ahead on the same day at the same time. There was only time to hear one. One case therefore proceeded as planned. All of the witnesses in the other 4 cases, as well as the respective defendants had to be told that their cases would have to be heard on another day. Whilst the CPS prosecutor was still utilised for the case which proceeded, the 4 respective defence solicitors for the cases which did not go ahead were obviously not required. They were being paid out of the legal aid pot, so there were 4 wasted fees paid out. The remaining 4 cases will be heard on a different date, so no money has been saved and, on the contrary, a great deal has been squandered.

Ultimately, the closure of 103 Magistrates' Courts is a crap idea at the moment because: (1) it comes before the necessary substantial reduction in cases coming through the courts [Footnote 1]; and (2) it could over-centralise justice and provide for a move away from local justice.

[1] These sorts of "cart before the horse" government initiatives abound in the world of Criminal Justice. For example, Labour's wild increase in sentences of imprisonment (number and length) before doing anything about the overcrowded prisons.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece.

24 June, 2010 18:16  

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