REFORMING THE MAGISTRATES’ COURTS – JUSTICE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS?

Written 12th September 2013 by Olliers Solicitors

Chris Grayling has, yesterday, confirmed proposals to legislate in respect of the powers of and procedures at the Magistrates’ Court in an attempt to allow Magistrates to concentrate on more ‘serious and contested’ cases.

Time Management

Despite stating that his main priority is to cut re-offending, the Justice Secretary has set out numerous proposals aimed at using the Courts’ time more effectively, voicing concerns over the number of Magistrates deployed to hear non-contested road traffic cases, the number of ineffective trials, and the amount of cases committed for sentence to the Crown Court, despite the sentence that is ultimately passed being one which could have been imposed by Magistrates.

It has been confirmed that in respect of uncontested road traffic offences, a single Magistrate will have the power to determine the verdict and sentence alone in an office. In justifying removing these cases from the public arena, Mr Grayling has said “It’s utterly absurd that three magistrates should spend their time rubber-stamping foregone conclusions in simple road traffic cases.”

Critics, however, have expressed concerns about the information being put forwards not being open to public scrutiny in open Court and suggest that people may indicate ‘not guilty’ pleas, in order to formally change their plea at Court and ensure a fair hearing.

Mr Grayling commends the work of the 23,500 Magistrates in his proposals and has stressed the need for caution in using out of Court disposals, a trend which has dramatically increased over the past few years. He therefore suggests that Magistrates will have a role to play in scrutinising any decision made by the police to divert a case from the Court system, although the logistics of this can clearly be questioned.

Offender Rehabilitation Bill

In seeking to show a tough approach towards offenders who fail to comply with Community Orders, the Offender Rehabilitation Bill will give Magistrates the power to commit an offender to custody for 14 days, presumably thus allowing for the Order to continue upon their release, in addition to introducing new licence and supervision measures for those serving short custodial sentences. Currently, those who receive a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are released automatically after serving half of their sentence but without any licence conditions or input from Probation.

Perhaps alluding to a greater plan, whilst stating that he wishes to maintain the sense of local justice, the Secretary of State indicates that he wants benches to cover greater areas. The implication perhaps being that this would negate the need for as many ‘local’ Magistrates’ Courts being in operation. The contradiction is clear.

Clearly Mr Grayling has been tasked with reducing the costs of the Criminal Justice System and this is one of many steps in his plans to do just that. The implications on justice, however, will have to be seen.

Laura Baumanis

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