Saturday, 29 January 2011

Criminal Procedure Rules in the Magistrates' Courts No.1 - A sea change in due process - Background and Overriding Objective

Criminal Procedure Rules (Crim PR) have been with us since 4th April 2005.  The latest version is April 2010 with a further amendment in October 2010 - see Ministry of Justice.  In August 2010 a revised Preparation for Trial form was issued for use in Magistrates' Courts.  Further amendments to the rules take effect on 4th April 2011.  It seems that the rules have gradually come into the consciousness of those who administer and practise in the criminal courts.  Just what are these rules and how do they apply in Magistrates' Courts?

The rules were introduced to address problems of delay in dealing with cases since delay is costly and adversely affects witnesses and the general administration of justice.  Magistrates' Courts are a "summary" jurisdiction and cases ought to be progressed as speedily as possible consistent with the need to ensure a fair trial.   The Courts Act 2003 s.69 legislated for the CrimPR and they have to be read in conjunction with other relevant law such as the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (CPIA) and the Consolidated Criminal Practice Direction issued by the Lord Chief Justice.  The CPIA Part 1 deals with the thorny topic of "disclosure" and the Act was extensively amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 but those amendments only apply where the investigation into the offence commenced on or after 4th April 2005 - ("Older" investigations need not concern us here).  The CPIA 1996 Part 1 is applicable in all trials in Magistrates' Courts (both adult and youth) as well as in the Crown Court - (see CPIA 96 s.1)  

The CrimPR commence with an "Overriding Objective"  - Rule 1 which is to deal with cases "justly" and this is further amplified in the Rules.  The court must further the overriding objective by actively managing each case (Rule 3.2).  Further, the participants must
actively assist the court to do this without being asked - (Rule 3.3).   A participant is anyone involved in any way with a criminal case (Rule1.2).  The court is the Judge or Magistrates and in some situations legal advisers to magistrates - (Rule 2.2

The overriding objective of the code is that cases be dealt with justly.  This is amplified in Crim PR - Rule 1.   It includes (a) acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty; (b) dealing with the prosecution and the defence fairly; (c) recongising the rights of a defendant, particularly those under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights; (d) respecting the interests of witnesses, victims and jurors and keeping them informed of the progress of the case; (e) dealing with the case efficiently and expeditiously; (f) ensuring that appropriate information is available to the court when bail and sentence are considered; and (g) dealing with the case in way that take into account (i) the gravity of the offence alleged, (ii) the complexity of what is in issue, (iii) the severity of the consequences for the defendant and others affected, and (iv) the needs of other cases.  Rule 1 goes on to require each participant to (a) prepare and conduct the case in accordance with the overriding objective; (b) comply with the CrimPR, practice directions and directions made by the court; and (c) to inform the court and all parties at once of any significant failure to take any procedural step required by the the CrimPR, any practice direction or any direction of the court.  A failure is significant if it might hinder the court in furthering the overriding objective.  Under CrimPR Rule 1.3 - the court must further the overriding objective in particular when (a) exercising any power given to it by legislation (including the CrimPR themselves); (b) applying any practice direction; or (c) interpreting any rule or practice direction.

On the face of it, the CrimPR set up a strict regime aimed at reducing delay in the Magistrates' Courts and at minimising the number of trials which are ineffective on the day of trial.  The rules seek to alter a long standing cultrure and they are appear to be taking some considerable time to become embedded in the system.  However, they are beginning to bite and compliance is (or should be) expected.  At this time, it is probably too early to make any sensible evaluation of the effectiveness of the rules.  It is hoped to look at further aspects of the rules in a later post.

Ministry of Justice - Criminal Procedure Rule Committee - description and membership.


  1. There was a culture of adjournment and prevarication endemic in the Magistrates Courts. It is to be hoped that the Rules will alter that culture. However, I am somewhat pessimistic, for two reasons: as far as I can tell there are no sanctions for non compliance (generally wasted costs orders are a waste of time in the Magistrates Court), and, secondly, it is not clear what are the advantages to the various players of complying with the rules. I hope I am wrong.

  2. I agree that lack of incentives to comply and largely ineffective sanctions are a serious problem. Also, the large and increasing number of unrepresented persons will make these rules difficult to apply. Furthermore, there is a supposed 6 weeks target built into the case progession form but trials in the bigger courts are now being listed in late April / May (if you are lucky). As courts get bigger still I suspect this delay will worsen. I also hope that I am wrong on this.