Thursday, 4 November 2010

Reports coming thick and fast: Victims Commissioner: Police Inspectorate

In March 2010, as the general election approached, Louise Casey was appointed Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses by Jack Straw (read).  She has produced a short 4 page report which, to be fair, levels valid criticisms at the criminal justice system - "Ending the Justice Waiting Game: a plea for common sense" - see Ministry of Justice website.  The report argues that delays in the Crown Court could be reduced by removing the right to trial by jury for many "either-way" offences such as minor theft.  Casey also argues that the sentencing powers of the Magistrates' Court should be increased.  (In fact, the latter was envisaged in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 but the change has not been implemented).  The Solicitor's Journal has published a somewhat emotive response - "Labour's ASBO apparatchik warned to keep her hands off trial by jury."

Let us look at the "pros and cons."  It is true that many cases dealt with by the Crown Court could be dealt with by Magistrates.  Also, as envisaged in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (but not implemented), Magistrates could be given greater powers.  Removing "lower level" cases from the Crown Court would enable that court to concentrate fully on the more serious cases and might enable some trials to take place sooner.  If that was achieved then it might help the victims of those offences.

Even with their present powers, there are delays in Magistrates' Courts and delays affect victims adversely.  It is not unusual for some cases to take a number of months from first hearing to finalisation and that is despite various efforts to reduce delay (e.g. CJSSS).  The Magistrates' Courts are also going to bear a large share of the governmental cuts in the administration of justice budget.  There will be far fewer courts.  For those reasons alone, it would seem far from sensible to simply give Magistrates more work at this time.

Next, there is the question of legal aid.  No additional work, especially serious work,  ought to be given to Magistrates' Courts without changes to legal aid to enable defendants to be represented.  The double test of "means and interests of justice" excludes most of the population from legal aid in Magistrates' Courts.  In the Crown Court, legal aid is also means tested but the position is better than in the Magistrates' Courts see "Crown Court Means Testing."

It must also be noted that the right to trial by jury is one of the oldest rights of the citizen and it is one which the Coalition government said it would "defend."  Mere financial savings should not be a reason in itself to remove this valuable right which some defendants choose to exercise.

That leads to the other criticism which Casey raises: namely, that many people who supposedly wanted jury trial end up pleading guilty in the Crown Court.  
"We need to stop the abuse of the process which allows defendants and their solicitors to string out a case at the expense of victims and the public.  I hope that the legal aid review will be looking at what role it can play in restricting such activity - for example through fixed fees for guilty pleas, whereby a solicitor is only paid a set amount if the defendant pleads guilty at any stage of the case."

It is true that defendants do often plead guilty in the Crown Court but there are many valid reasons for this which Casey does not appear to be concerned about.  Further, the later a guilty plea is entered then the lower will be the "sentencing discount."

A few years ago, Lord Justice Auld, produced a "Criminal Justice Review" - September 2001.  This suggested a tier of jurisdiction between Magistrates and the Crown Court.  The "middle tier" (which Auld referred to as a "District Court") would have comprised magistrates sitting with a judge.  However, Auld's report included various other caveats relating to such a court - e.g. only the judge would deal with sentencing; defendants could, if they wished, opt for judge-only trial; magistrates would not be present if parties wished to discuss the law.  This proposal appeared to find little favour with either judges or, maybe because of the various caveats, magistrates.

Police Inspectorate Report

A further report which merits reading is from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary - "Stop the Drift: A focus on 21st century criminal justice."   The report complains of waste and inefficiency in the system.  This may merit a post on its own later.

Other links:  See CJS Online re Victims and Witnesses.

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