August is traditionally seen as the silly season in the news cycle so it was a perfect time for you to launch your policy concerning magistrates and making the criminal justice system more efficient. By that I mean such a vital policy should not be lost under the morass of other policy announcements, rather than it fitting nicely alongside stories concerning Katie Price or that nice chap with the hair in One Direction.
So my friend, you have identified one of essential problems at the heart of the criminal justice. It is important that magistrates “are routinely dealing with serious and complex cases, within their powers, rather than committing them to the Crown Court for sentencing” and that you find a way of “unclogging magistrates’ courts, for example, by dealing with the 500,000 or so simple road traffic offences out of the traditional process, freeing-up time for magistrates in courtrooms to deal with more serious offences”. Serious and complex cases are exactly what the magistrates is for, not for dealing with cases where someone is prosecuted by the state for driving matters – I mean that is virtually just an exercise in revenue raising by administrative act so should not have that whole “burden and standard of proof” thing anyway. You speak of these hearings being dealt with by a single magistrate in an office. Too right. No need for decisions that can lead to fines, points on driving licences, economic impacts on the individual’s ability to get jobs and insurance and decisions that may ultimately lead to a driving ban to be taken under public scrutiny in open court at the heart of the community. That’s not what the lay bench are for at all.
This is why your policy announcement rises above the normal silly season fare. You are restructuring the whole criminal justice system as we know it. You envisage a magistrates’ court that “routinely deals with serious and complex cases”. The Consolidated Criminal Procedure Rules currently advise magistrates “where cases involve complex questions of fact or difficult questions of laws….. the court should consider committal for trial”. So your policy signifies changes to be made that are far reaching and fundamental. No wonder you would want them to knock Simon Cowell’s love life off the front page. This is not something to try to sneak in under the radar.
In your press release announcing your brave new world you draw the attention of the press to the comparative costs of dealing with a case in the magistrates and the Crown Court. Can I suggest a simple way forward? Get some of those vans. You know, the “immigrant go home” vans? They have proved a bit controversial so get them repainted with the slogan “your worship, accept jurisdiction” and drive them in the vicinity of all magistrate courts. Magistrates have to realise they are volunteers, unlike those expensive Circuit Judge types. They are the very definition of the Big Society. And that means not committing people for sentence is cheap. Bloody cheap. I know that the Consolidated Criminal Procedure Rules state “the court should never make its decision [whether to commit] on the grounds of convenience or expedition” but it doesn’t hurt if we hammer it home to the bench that it is cheaper. The CCPR doesn’t say they can’t base the decision on costs. They probably should not say in open court but no harm giving them a nudge in the right direction is it?
One of the things that you point out is that in 4 out of 10 cases that are committed to the Crown Court for sentence the defendant receives a sentence that is less than the maximum available to the magistrates who committed him/her for sentence. So only 6 in every 10 get more than 6 months in custody when they have been committed save for pursuant to section 6 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. This is what I like to call the 666 factor (it’s an omen, Damian, an omen).
So we have the situation where a magistrate will often take the decision that they would have passed a higher sentence than is ultimately imposed by the troublesome full time, legally qualified judiciary. Not just an isolated incident but in just under half of all the cases committed. I even understand that, not infrequently, the Crown Court judge will impose a community order in cases where the Magistrates thought their powers insufficient. There are only two answers. One is to up the maximum sentence available to the magistrates. I see in your speech you dangle that tantalisingly before them. But what is much better is just to get them to rein it in a little bit. Have them think “well I would hammer them, but if I just knock a few weeks off I can squeeze it under our maximum and keep him away from that namby-pamby bleeding heart liberal soft arsed Judge and save loads of money in the process”. So we save costs and probably get a nice jump in the prison numbers. Lots of lovely short term prisoners who have little access to rehabilitative work in custody just banged up for hours on end playing Playstation. Get them in custody and get them out again to get them back in again. It is devilishly good.
Admittedly most of those defendants will probably elect to use their automatic right to appeal that sentence to the Crown Court. So the cost saving may be subsumed in to another part of the budget. But I am sure you have a plan for that. Like take away the automatic right to appeal (the devil is in the detail, Damian). It may not be justice but (to quote Franklin Sinclair) it’s not your job to care about justice. Well technically it is, but let’s not quibble over job titles.
Keep up the good work. Perhaps with all the money you are looking to save in streamlining the system you could put some money back in to fees?….. Only joking!!
PS my favourite Kylie song was always “Better the Devil You Know”.
PPS it may interest you to know that if you Google “Damian Green” one of Google’s suggested search terms is “Damian Green Fiddle”. Was a little worried it was going to be one of those tricky expenses misunderstandings like your boss Chris “Split the Bill” Grayling but turns out there is a violinist called Damian Green. Funny.