By Martin Beckford, Home Affairs Editor
Officers will have to apply a “justice test” to consider if the crime should be dealt with in court, amid fears that too many serious offenders are escaping with a slap on the wrist.
Prosecutors and judges will also be told to deal with cases more quickly, as they did during last summer’s riots, while courtrooms will stay open longer and make better use of video technology in order to reduce delays.
Courts will be told to ditch their “archaic love of paper” and move into a more modern and open era in which important information will be published online, including the names of convicted criminals.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Nick Herbert, Minister for Policing & Criminal Justice, admitted that the proposals – in a new White Paper called Swift and Sure Justice – have alarmed some defence lawyers.
But he insisted: “To be a victim of a crime, even a minor one, is a horrible experience. We should not make it worse through inexcusable delay in bringing offenders to justice.
“And the sooner that criminals face the consequences of their actions, the greater the chance of preventing them from harming people again.”
Overall a third of the 1.1million crimes solved by police in 2011 were dealt with through out-of-court disposals including penalty notices of up to £80 and cautions. Neither counts as a conviction but both are recorded on police computers and show up on enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks.
They are only meant to be handed to first-time offenders and just for low-level crimes such as shoplifting or drunken disorder, yet research this week showed that half are given to people with previous convictions, and hundreds are being used in serious cases such as robberies and sexual assaults. Both the Lord Chief Justice and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary have warned that too many violent and persistent criminals are being spared court appearances.
To make sure fines and cautions are used properly, the new White Paper will require police officers to consider if it would be more appropriate for the crime to be dealt with in court. This will mean the offender can be given a tougher sentence and also forced to pay compensation to their victim.
Under the justice test, which will replace several pieces of guidance that differ across England and Wales, officers on the street will have consider if the offender has a criminal history, how serious their crime was and what impact it had on the victim.
Mr Herbert said: “On-the-spot fines and cautions can be swift, but they must also be appropriate. They have sometimes been used wrongly, for instance when repeat offenders aren’t sent to court. Magistrates have felt marginalised, yet they have an historic role in community justice which should be greatly valued.
“So magistrates will now scrutinise the use of out-of-court disposals, and police officers will apply a new ‘justice test’ when considering how to deal with each offence.”
The White Paper will also set out ways to transform the “culture” in courts by making them run more quickly and efficiently, as they did following the riots and as they are expected to do during the Olympics.
Mr Herbert said most magistrates’ court cases take five months from offence to sentence while fewer than half of all trials start on the scheduled date.
“What would happen if airlines were run like this?” he asked.
Courts will be expected to open for longer than the usual hours of 10am until 4pm, and hold trials on Saturdays rather than just brief remand hearings. About 100 magistrates’ courts are already sitting at weekends and bank holidays in a pilot project.
Mr Herbert said: “There’s been some criticism from defence lawyers, but justice should be administered in the public interest, with thought for victims, not for the convenience of professionals.”
Police officers will be allowed to give evidence via video link from their stations rather than wasting hours “hanging around courts”, while files will be sent digitally so no one has to photocopy them any more.
Magistrates will be able to sit in community centres for simple cases and communities in 15 pilot areas will form Neighbourhood Justice Panels that bring together victims and offenders to resolve low-level problems.
Shoplifting cases that currently take five weeks could be dealt with in 13 days under the plans, or in just a few hours if the thief pleads guilty in a “virtual court”.
Ministers also intend to televise some court hearings, starting with judges’ sentencing remarks, and will publish online information about performance in the criminal justice system as well as daily court lists.
“The next step is the more widespread naming of offenders online so that communities have confidence that justice has been done,” Mr Herbert said, although there is anxiety among officials that this would lead to human rights claims by criminals on the grounds that it would prevent them getting a job again.
John Fassenfelt, Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “The M
A broadly welcome the proposals in the White Paper and particularly the role for magistrates in scrutinising the use of out-of-court disposals to disable any misuse and abuse as has happened in the past all too often.
“While most of our members will be pleased to see a role for single justices to deal with low-level uncontested cases we are concerned about the venue to safeguard judicial independence and that such powers for this role should be for the judiciary only and not delegated to justices’ clerks.”