Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm Not Sure How To Admit This

This isn't going to be easy, I know. I have led a pretty blameless life, and I have rarely had to admit to thoughts or deeds that run counter to all that I have previously held dear. But here goes:
It's this, then:-

I find myself in agreement with Jack Straw.

There, I have said it.

Speaking to the Magistrates' Association earlier this month, the Justice Secretary said:

the number of cases going to the Crown Court has increased. But we also know that magistrates are declining jurisdiction to hear trials in more either way cases than three or four years ago; Crown Prosecution Service figures indicate around 6,000 a year. In 2007 around 59,000 defendants were sentenced in either way cases in the Crown Court, of which 20,000 could, on the face of it, have been dealt with by magistrates. I have heard that magistrates are bound to take the upper end of the prosecution’s view of where a case might be heard as a result of the defendant’s election.

But let me give you an example. The Sentencing Advisory Panel has found that in 2006 found that 80% of fines for theft offences in the Crown Court were for less than £200 and 59% of these were for less than £50. Some of those cases may have merited the attention of a Crown Court judge because of prevalence or reputation. But at the same time, the levels of fines suggest that some could have been dealt with just as effectively as magistrates.

This is, of course, a matter of judicial discretion. You will want to take into account a whole range of factors in determining where a case will be best heard. But I think it is, at the very least, worth asking yourselves the question: are the matters at issue so serious that a Crown Court trial is necessary? Or would it be better – for victim, witness, defendant and public confidence – to dispose of the case more quickly in the magistrates’ court? If you find your powers to sentence a defendant are not sufficient, you are able to refer a case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

I believe there is a strong case for magistrates being more confident in retaining jurisdiction. Just as you have grasped the nettle of court efficiencies under CJSSS, I now want to encourage you to use the full extent of your powers in either way cases, where appropriate, rather than referring them to the Crown Court.

This is something that I have felt for some time. Many magistrates and their legal advisers play for safety in sending cases upstairs, but the facts show that a large proportion of those cases end up being sentenced well within the powers of the lower court. That is a waste of money and of resources, and by delaying justice it deprives victims and witnesses of seeing their case dealt with swiftly and fairly.

A few months ago I saw a case that seemed to me to be eminently suitable for summary disposal. It was a guilty plea, but I can't otherwise say too much about it. My clerk was, while respecting the bench's prerogative of making the decision, clearly nervous about our keeping the case, and my colleagues' views persuaded me that the case should be sent upstairs. I made discreet enquiries of the Crown Court the other day, and I discovered what the learned judge had decided - six weeks' imprisonment.

Crown Courts are busy; very much so in London. They cost vastly more per sitting day than the lower courts. They consume more resources of advocates and judiciary, and delay disposal by weeks and months.

I hope to see my fellow JPs bracing themselves to accept more of the borderline cases that currently go upstairs. We have the powers, we have the competence. All that we lack, sometimes, is the courage.

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