UK & World News
Courts Shake-Up Focuses On 'Swift Justice'
Criminals could be dealt with in days or even hours under Government plans to bring in "swift and sure justice", ministers are to reveal.
Court hours will be more flexible, technology will enable police officers to give evidence remotely and video links for defendants and witnesses will become routine, the Ministry of Justice said.
Police will also be given simpler guidance on how to deal with offenders, while magistrates will have the power to check officers' use of cautions and penalty notices following concerns that serious and persistent offenders were escaping justice.
The move could see "straightforward" shoplifting cases being resolved in under two weeks, compared with the current five, Friday's white paper will say.
Under the plans, magistrates will also be given a stronger role in community justice, with single magistrates sitting outside of courts, such as in community centres, "to dispense rapid and effective justice in low-level, uncontested cases".
Neighbourhood justice panels will also be brought in to deal with anti-social behaviour and low-level crime, with offenders making amends to victims and repairing any damage done.
Policing and criminal justice minister Nick Herbert is expected to say: "It is a basic principle of justice that it should be delivered without delay, yet straightforward cases that could be dealt with in days or even hours are taking weeks and months.
"Justice delayed is justice denied, and victims are the biggest losers."
Typically, almost five months pass between an offence taking place and any sentence being handed down, despite the fact most cases do not have to go to trial or are uncontested.
Last summer's riots showed the system can move much faster and "swift and sure" justice should be routine, Mr Herbert will add.
"With a stronger role for magistrates, greater involvement of communities and the drive of elected police and crime commissioners, we will forge a system that grips offenders at the earliest point to prevent the slide into more serious offending.
"This new focus on delivering swift and sure justice will support the police, give communities a voice, and reduce crime."
The move comes after David Cameron said in October that the public wanted to see speedy justice and if it was possible in the wake of the riots, then "let's make sure we do it all the time".
Under the plans, shoplifting cases currently taking five weeks could be dealt with in 13 days or fewer, or even hours where the offender pleads guilty in a virtual court.
A pilot scheme will also be rolled out so courts can sit when they are needed, with some 100 magistrates' courts already sitting on Saturdays and bank holidays.
A new so-called justice test will also simplify existing guidance to help officers decide how to deal with offenders.
And magistrates will be able to scrutinise the police use of out-of-court disposals, such as cautions and penalty notices.
It follows concerns from the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary that they were being issued inappropriately.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said greater efficiency, and making the best use of technology, "has to be in the best interests of victims, prosecution and defence witnesses and all parties within the wider criminal justice system".
Graham Beech, director at the crime reduction charity Nacro, said: "Speedy justice makes it easier to connect the sentence with the crime.
"But speeding up the process shouldn't be at the expense of proper justice or compromise the crucial need for appropriate sentences."
He went on: "We need to ensure that the resources are there to deal with any increased flow of people through the justice system that these proposals might bring.
"And we don't want a quick fix leading to more people being given ineffective sentences, preventing us from challenging offenders in the community and stopping them reoffending in the future."
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association (MA), said: ""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."
Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said: "The justice system can be painfully slow. Many victims and witnesses tell us that waiting for a trial - or even just information about a case - is particularly stressful.
"We therefore welcome efforts to speed up the justice process, providing appropriate safeguards are introduced to ensure victims are never made to feel like a 'spare part', with all the focus being on dealing with the offender."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "The public, victims, even defendants themselves are right to expect that those accused of crimes are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
"But, while more evening and weekend sittings, and more justice handed down at the community level, sounds practical, it won't come cheaply.
"I hope the Government are going to explain exactly how this is going to be funded.
"The fear is that these proposals are simply designed to save money.
"And if this results in the cutting of corners within our justice system, it increases the risk of miscarriages of justice, which will further erode the public's confidence."