“Justice in a back office” - thousands of motorists convicted behind closed doors in Norfolk
- Credit: Archant
Hundreds of criminal cases a day are being dealt with by a solitary volunteer sitting in a back office as magistrates courts try to lessen the burden of low-level offences. DOMINIC GILBERT reports on the Single Justice Procedure.
It took 90 seconds on average for a lone magistrate to impose driving bans of between six months and two years.
The defendant had not turned up to court in any of the cases. They had, in theory, been warned of the hearing and offered the chance to plead guilty.
Otherwise they are convicted in their absence, in a process accused of being a 'rubber stamp'.
Once a week a volunteer magistrate will sit alone in a court office, assisted by a legal advisor, to sift through a stack of motoring offences brought before the court.
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On Tuesday at Norwich Magistrates Court 200 cases were listed - for offences ranging from speeding to no insurance or driving without a licence.
They are filed under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) - which has been operating at the court since September 2015 to speed up prosecutions.
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In the 12 months between September 2016 and September 2017, 3,515 motoring offences were prosecuted under the SJP. Of those, 3,151 ended in conviction, either through guilty pleas by proxy or convictions in absence.
The problem arises when the prospect of a driving ban looms. If the offence is serious enough or too many points have been accrued on a licence, the case will be adjourned off for a disqualification hearing.
Five motorcyclists convicted of driving at speeds of up to 140mph on the A47 on August 6 last year still have not had their day in court. Convicted in their absence under the SJP in January, the next date available for a hearing was June 18.
'There is no discretion,' says Simon Nicholls, of Belmore Solicitors. 'Police just send these cases to SJP even when it is a case that clearly can't be dealt with by SJP.
'Many magistrates privately express that view that it is justice in a back room. They have indicated to me they are uncomfortable about justice being done in that way.
'I have never seen such protracted cases at the moment in terms of delays in motoring cases. We have got cases in Norfolk at the moment going off until July, and it often won't be dealt with for more than a year since the offence.'
Of the 294 cases between September 2016 and September 2017 that resulted in disqualification, the average time from offence to completion was 230 days, according to Ministry of Justice figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.
In an attempt to speed up the process, Norwich Magistrates Court saw the introduction of SJP disqualification hearings on Tuesday. For the first time a magistrate sitting alone could impose a driving ban on a defendant in their absence.
One of the first cases was 24-year-old Daniel Burlingham, of Corton Long Lane, Lowestoft. He wrote to the court admitting driving without a licence or insurance, with a child under 14 in the front seat without a seatbelt.
The magistrate banned him from driving for two years. Each of the other 20 drivers were banned for six months. In a single morning more than £10,000 in fines was given out to motorists who did not appear at court to answer the charge.
'If you have one single magistrate sitting in a back room dealing with a huge number of cases, there must be pressure on that individual to perhaps not give as much judicial thought to a case,' added Mr Nicholls.
Some defendants remained unaware for months a case has been brought against them.
Louise Goodson, of Blenheim Road in Norwich, coming to court to make a statutory declaration, said she had not known of her conviction in January of this year until bailiffs chased her for payment of a court fine in May.
'I only found out about the case on May 12 when I got a letter from the bailiffs,' she told the court. 'As far as I was concerned my car was insured and the insurance company were happy.'
After being convicted in her absence In January, Goodson has now denied the charge and will return to court on August 9.
Others could not come to court so simply accepted their fate.
48-year-old social services worker Sarah Miller, from Campion Road in Thetford, was banned for six months. She had been caught using a mobile phone while driving and already had six points on her licence.
She asked the magistrate to deal with the case without her as she would 'struggle a great deal to get to court'.
'It is not open justice,' said Mr Nicholls. 'If it is simply a parking ticket that's fine - but we are talking about cases of careless driving and no insurance, cases people should be able to watch. It worries me because it could be the tip of the iceberg.
'There is a perception it is just a rubber stamping exercise.'
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:'For those who want to plead guilty and receive swift justice the Single Justice Procedure is a straightforward way of doing so.
'A defendant who pleads not guilty or wishes to have their day in court can still do so.
'Open justice is a vital principle of our courts system and the press and public will continue to have access to information about the outcome of these cases as they do now.'
Criminal justice system is 'rapidly haemorrhaging'
Mr Nicholls added there has to be a 'filter system' to the Single Justice Procedure which 'isn't there at the moment'.
'The strength of the magistrates system is there are three of them,' he said. 'That gives you checks and balances. If you have someone with a cavalier attitude sitting that day you could completely skew the results.
'What we should be doing is resourcing the courts and prosecution team more significantly. I think we are a criminal justice system that is rapidly haemorrhaging at the moment in terms of lack of resource.
'The solution has to be more money in the system. Magistrates are free but the courts are not.'
The Magistrates Association of England and Wales has said of the SJP they would be 'concerned if the public began to think these were no longer criminal cases handled by magistrates, with the same rigour as every other case.'