The Government’s plan for further reform of the criminal justice system is titled Swift and Sure Justice. It talks at length about localised fast processing of low level criminal cases.
It’s been suggested that the response to the Summer 2011 riots demonstrated that this is possible, appropriate, needed and desired. It envisages the opening of magistrates’ courts for longer; starting sittings at 8.30am, holding trials at weekends and later evening sessions.
Certainly the response of the Courts and all relevant bodies, including the defence, during the 2011 Riots was commendable and assisted in the swift prosecution of an unprecedented number of offenders. However, unless the government envisages similar levels of anarchy on a regular basis, it is hard to see how this response is ‘appropriate, needed and desired’. There quite simply isn’t the workload to justify the proposals.
The later court sittings are suggested to deal with custody cases, cases where a defendant’s liberty is at stake and must envisage a right to representation, but solicitors firms will find this a hard cost to carry. Already present for Saturday morning hearings, a solicitor who has been chosen by the defendant does not get any enhanced rate of pay. How are firms to cover the provision of solicitors to courts on a 7 day week basis? Smaller firms will find it particularly hard to properly organise flexible hours or remunerate staff.
To run trials on a weekend, time often already used by solicitors to catch up and prepare, courts would have to take all summary work. This would require making all parties in the system available such as interpreters, court cells staff, prisoner transport and reception staff at prisons. The alternative is to have the cost of opening courts but limit cases to defendants not in custody who can not receive custodial sentences or have further adjournments. Can the expense of running full trials at weekends be justified at a time when the case load of courts is decreasing and Government has insisted upon austerity measures?