There are some worthwhile ideas in the ‘speeding up justice’ white paper, but let’s consider what we would like to achieve first, says Andrew Church-Taylor
Speed shouldn’t be confused with efficiency, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system. This is the trouble with the proposals in the white paper released by police minister Nick Herbert last week (13 July 2012). We are now to have speeded up justice, which will supplement the simple, speedy summary justice that was rolled out only relatively recently. It may give us speed, but I doubt it will give us justice. Indeed, justice may have been lost some time ago in successive governments’ obsession with the need to process cases more quickly. Everyone in the system is keen that it should be run efficiently but efficiency and speed are not the same thing.
One concern ‒ before we even look at the substance of the proposals ‒ relates to the timescales that have been quoted for the progress of cases. Five months to deal with a case that is not contested. I just don’t accept that. It is certainly not my experience, or indeed that of many others who have daily contact with the system. The majority of cases are dealt with efficiently, properly and far more quickly.
I am also not convinced that you should base any proposals with regard to the system on the way that the courts and those who participated in them reacted to the riots in London and other major cities last summer. If the lawyers, who were prepared to work late into the night to assist the process at the time, believed that this was going to be the norm, my guess is that they might have been less willing to cooperate.
I also read with some amusement that David Cameron allegedly saw the reaction of those post riots to be reflective of his ‘Big Society’ idea where the community pulled together to clean up the debris, repair the damage and obviously, in the courts, process the offenders. Well if that is the case then I’ve got a plan – why not pick a town each weekend for a riot. We can destroy it, rebuild it and who needs Mary Portas. For regeneration, a riot is a far more effective tool.
On, however, to some of that which we are told will be the detail: local justice for low level offending to be dealt with in the community by single magistrates sitting in community centres and dealing with offenders so that those wronged can expect apologies and restorative justice. The people in the community can then see that justice has been done and take a role within it. That is what we once had ‒ a magistrates court in each town. Over a period of time, however, there have been court closures. Opposition by the local community was brushed aside by successive governments as justice became concentrated in larger court centres.
So it is off now back to the local communities who are again needed to administer justice but this time on the cheap. And, with a little added bonus, there will be no lawyers to interfere with the process.
When, as lawyers, we can get involved in the process, we will be there for longer and the working week will be that, a full week, seven days.
Evening courts have of course been trialled before. They have been presented as being better for witnesses and more convenient for working defendants. That experiment didn’t succeed. Why should now offering a trial on a Sunday prove attractive to any participants? As criminal lawyers we already provide a 24 hour, 7 days a week, 365 days a year service for the police station. It is one step too far to provide such service with qualified lawyers to carry out court proceedings.
There may be some good ideas floating round in the white paper. Digital files will become a reality and that could be progress. There might be more extensive use of video links too. Again, we are becoming used to those and, with the appropriate safeguard, these may well be acceptable but let’s have a considered and sensible approach to improving the efficiency of the service rather than the knee jerk ill-considered reaction which we appear to be subjected to.
I can, however, see one distinct advantage and that is with regard to the welfare of one small child. If David Cameron was prepared to work as he would have us lawyers work then his family wouldn’t be in the pub on a Sunday to leave one of his children there.