Thursday, 10 December 2020

Coronavirus restrictions ~ Single Justice Procedure

On 9 December, published court lists show some 1443 cases listed for "Single Justice Procedure" (SJP). The cases listed are for matters such as keeping a vehicle without a valid vehicle licence, using a TV without a licence etc. In the overall picture of crime generally these are minor matters but are of consequence to the individuals involved.  

"Minor" offences are not necessarily without legal complications as was amply demonstrated by the cases involving using a mobile telephone whilst driving - DPP v Barreto [2019] EWHC 2044 (Admin).

Single Justice Procedure:

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduced a Single Justice Procedure (SJP) in

which a single Justice of the Peace (JP) is permitted to sit alone, and in private, to decide cases provided the offences to be considered are summary only and non-imprisonable.  (In practice, the JP will consider the cases along with a legal adviser).

Proceedings by this method are initiated by a prosecutor (e.g. the CPS) issuing a Single Justice Procedure Notice to which the individual must respond and indicate either not guilty or guilty. The individual has to agree to the case being heard by this method. Disagreement will result in a trial in open court. Understandably, many people are keen to avoid a public court appearance.

A case cannot be tried under the single justice procedure where a single justice decides, before the defendant is convicted, that it would be inappropriate to do so.  It is not clear under what circumstances a JP should consider it to be inappropriate to proceed..

If the SJP results in a finding of guilt then the JP can proceed to sentence the offender. When fixing a fine, the means of the offender has to be considered. (Fixed penalty notices are issued without consideration of means).

The legislation also permits a single magistrate to make certain ancillary orders to enable them to effectively deal with cases. These powers enable a single justice to deal with summary-only non-imprisonable offences in a similar way to a traditional bench of magistrates dealing with a prosecution instituted by a written charge and requisition. This includes the ability to: endorse a driving licence; disqualify a driver, and order compensation to be paid to a victim.

Legal aid for representation is not available for SJP.

Coronavirus Restrictions:

Concern has arisen in some quarters about the use of SJP to deal with cases arising under the various Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations.  

The Mayor of London has been asked whether he will make representations to the Ministry of Justice re the lack of media access to some of the 300 Single Justice Procedure prosecutions - see the Evening Standard report - “Covid rule breakers targeted in secret London prosecutions“ (dated 16th October).

It is also pertinent to question whether SJP is suitable for this type of prosecution even though the various offences in the Regulations fit the basic criteria of being summary only and non-imprisonable.

It is likely that most of the cases will have arisen because fixed penalty notices have not been paid within the 28 days permitted. The prosecutor has then issued a SJP notice as opposed to a summons.

The various restrictions have been made with a view to limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus which, at the time of writing, has claimed 62,566 lives in the UK - (government data). Breach of the Regulations cannot therefore be seen as a trivial matter.

Coronavirus restrictions regulations first came into force for England and Wales on 26 March 2020. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland adopted separate schemes for their restrictions.

The Regulations are not especially easy to interpret and they have been subjected to frequent changes by way of either amendment or replacement. In addition, there has been extensive guidance issued by the government.

Whilst SJP is designed to streamline the handling of large numbers of routine cases, it seems problematic to use the procedure to deal with legally untested Regulations which are subject to frequent change as the government response to the pandemic develops. The 'behind closed doors procedure' has placed a veil of mystery over the whole process and it will not be surprising if inconsistency in decision-making is common especially with sentencing  which is in the hands of individual JPs operating without published guidelines specifically aimed at these offences.

10 December 2020

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