Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Magistrates Courts ~ Unacceptable delays

Justice Minister Mr Damian Green is seeking to improve the performance of the Magistrates Courts - Ministry of Justice - Damian Green: unacceptable delays in Magistrates Courts.   He is right to do so but, let's remember, there have been several quite recent 'initiatives' aimed at the same thing: Criminal Justice: Simple, Speedy, Summary (CJSSS); Making it Count (in Youth Courts); Stop delaying Justice and also considerable emphasis on Case Management.  

The Defence Brief blog recently drew attention to some of the problems - Courts are a Farce.  There is no reason to suppose that the inefficiencies referred to are all that unusual and the Justice Minister would do well to read it. 

Anyone inclined to think that inefficiency is a recent innovation
should read a post on The Magistrates' Blog in May 2007 which drew attention to problems with the Crown Prosecution Service - CJSSS+CPS=SFA.

Since the Courts Act 2003, the Magistrates Courts have undergone profound changes in the way they are administered.  These may not have been entirely for the better.  Of course, as is so often the case, change has been piled on change with the system having to embrace court closures on a huge scale together with loss of experienced staff - a process which has probably not ended.

A further point well worth noting is that most of the problems lie with the professionals and NOT with the volunteer Justices of the Peace - those judicial beasts of burden who continue to serve so well.  Attend any Magistrates' Court and the bench is always there to start hearings at the appointed time but so rarely is the professional side entirely ready.

Criminal offences are dealt with either by out of court methods (e.g. cautions, penalty notices etc) or by the Magistrates Courts or, for serious cases, by the Crown Court.  The reality is that the vast majority of offences fall to be disposed of by the first two methods.  The Magistrates Courts are therefore of critical importance to criminal justice and they merit better attention than they appear to be receiving.


  1. He himself remarks that the biggest "problem" is the last-minute plea - and that's human nature at work.

  2. "A further point well worth noting is that most of the problems lie with the professionals and NOT with the volunteer Justices of the Peace - those judicial beasts of burden who continue to serve so well. Attend any Magistrates' Court and the bench is always there to start hearings at the appointed time but so rarely is the professional side entirely ready."

    This is true but it's worth saying that most lawyers I know show up early but, unfortunately, clients don't always oblige. Also, when appearing as court duty you often don't know who you will be representing until shortly before the court sits. Only once you know can you obtain papers, see and advise the client and then represent him or her.

    Lay magistrates can slow the process down with their need to discuss everything. 9 times out of 10 this doesn't cause an unreasonable delay but sometimes you will get a bench who for some reason need to go out to discuss everything. I've seen a few go out to discuss an unopposed adjournment caused by somebody being in hospital.

    Many delays are caused by a lack of papers. It occurs to me that, if you could trust government to introduce a computer system that works, there is no reason the police and CPS couldn't have a computer that allows both to access case files and simultaneously allows those same papers to be downloaded by the defence and court via a secure log-in facility. It's not rocket science and I'm pretty sure that any reasonably competent 17-year-old A-Level computing student could pull of a basic system quickly.

    1. Thanks for the comments. It is great to have the views of someone who knows the workings of the Magistrates' Court from a Duty Solicitor perspective.

      Training for Magistrates' Court Chairmen has improved markedly in recent years and they have an appraisal system. Unnecessary retirements should not take place. It is a simple matter for a Chairman to just ask his colleagues whether they agree.

      I make no bones about my belief that lay magistrates do a great job guided by their legal advisers. Personally, I would not like to see professionalisation of these courts.

  3. Forgot to say thanks for the mention and kind words in your post.

  4. I do think magistrates have got much better at making decisions on the bench in the last couple of years - especially where larger courts allow a whispered conversation out of hearing of all, not always true in the smaller court rooms.

    The Minister referred to trial delays of six months, and he is more or less correct in that. However, before the cuts to the CPS budget ?18 months ago, magistrates courts in my local area were pretty much hitting the target time of (from memory) 8 weeks. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between the cuts and the vastly increased waiting times, and that all the fiddling around the edges with timetabling trials and so forth is unlikely to make much difference. If you drastically reduce the number of trial courts days covered by CPS it is bound to increase delays unless the number of trials is also reduced which is outside the control of the courts and doesn't appear to have happened.

    If the Minister wishes to find someone to blame, he probably needs to look closer to home.

    I agree about the IT - though I don't think I'd want a 17 year old doing it I think!

  5. As a JP I will not pass a sentence of immediate custody - or remand in custody when there has been an application for bail - without rising. When I am on the wing I warn the Chair in advance that if the possibility of anyone going down arises I will insist on rising.

    I take the view that it shows a lack of respect for the person concerned to pack him or her off to the misery of an English prison after a hugger-mugger on the bench. The result may be inevitable but at least if we go to the retiring room we can write proper reasons without constraint.

    If I am in the Chair I also insist that a rising under such circumstances is not the occasion for coffee. The defendant has the right to know quickly whether s/he is going home or not.

    1. @ Andrew T - thank you for your observations.

      There are some matters that clearly require a bench to retire: consideration of verdict; most sentencing matters; bail decisions. Nobody would sensibly expect such key decisions to be made without proper thought. Also, as you say, reasons need to be agreed between between the JPs sitting. I am personally against Court Chairmen delivering homilies to defendants in the way that some judges do. Anything said at sentencing ought to be agreed with colleagues.

      Of course, there are occasions when no retirement is needed. Unopposed applications for adjournments (as per example given by Defence Brief) and the like. This is where the Chairman's skill and experience has to be applied.

      Courtroom layout affects the decision to retire. City of Manchester used to have (mostly) large courtrooms in its older Magistrates Court at Crown Square. It was clearly easier for a short discussion to take place without retirement. The present Magistrates Court has much smaller courtrooms and discussion is usually better in the retiring room.