Posts in March

Court in the Act!

March 13th, 2014   •   no comments   

P1020900It seems that on-the-spot justice is back on the agenda again. But isn’t right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange just putting old ideas in new bottles by revisiting an idea that was first floated – in a different guise – nearly four years ago? Last time around the motivation was to bring justice back into the centre of the community by putting courts in places accessible to the public – like supermarkets! This time, according to recent reports on the BBC, the motivation is cutting Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service budget by 37% before 2016. All the old arguments for and against still apply, but a new thought occurs. Will so-called ‘Police Courts’ do more to harm the image of the police than aid efficiency?

As the opening sequence of ‘Law & Order: UK’ reminds us every episode, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police who investigate crime, and the Crown Prosecutors who prosecute the offenders.” If we undermine the public’s faith in the distinction between these two aspects of the law, do we also call into question the impartiality of the court system, and undermine the presumption of innocence which is every citizen’s right until proven otherwise? Furthermore, in an age when police credibility is continuously under attack, do they really need the public to form the – mistaken – impression that they are judge and jury rolled into one? Surely this is another burden the police don’t need to shoulder!

Here’s what I wrote in Jewellery Focus in October 2010: –

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The newspapers have been full of gleeful stories about courts in shopping centres with the more extreme foaming at the mouth at the prospect of handing out summary justice to shoplifters and other miscreants. As usual, the story isn’t quite what it seems, but it does prompt an interesting train of thought.

It seems that the Magistrates Association, which represents 28,000 members, is to call on the Ministry of Justice to set up improvised courts in empty shops and unused council rooms to deliver “summary justice that is as speedy and local as possible”. The proposal comes as the government consults on closing more than 100 courts to save money; instead it wants to send offenders to fewer, larger courts. Currently Her Majesty’s Court Service operates 330 magistrate’s courts and is concerned that some hear too few cases. Many buildings are also not fully accessible for disabled court users and do not have secure facilities for prisoners.

But by reducing court numbers the Magistrates Association is afraid that the result might be longer journeys to court, thus discouraging offenders from turning up; and increasing the number of ‘no-shows’ resulting in more delays and extra expense. Shoplifting and drink–driving, where offenders have been caught red-handed and will plead guilty, and can normally be handled quickly, might also create bottlenecks. “Petty offenders commit crimes that should be dealt with as quickly as possible and as locally as possible,” said John Howson, the association’s deputy chairman. “Justice should not be hidden away and people should be able to see it in operation. We could have a court in the Westfield shopping centre for instance, so that instead of a shoplifter being taken to a police station and it taking hours to build a file, even if they are going to plead guilty, they could be dealt with far more quickly.”

Clearly the idea has some merit, and it is sensible to have police stations and courts in places that are accessible to the population, and increasingly shopping centres fulfil that role. Plus, if shopping mall courts deal predominantly with shoplifting and driving offences, they may speed up the process. But doesn’t this proposal prompt a number of other questions? For instance, doesn’t everyone, even those who are ultimately found guilty, have the right to prepare a defense, and have adequate legal representation? If shoplifters are frog marched straight from shop to court, is it good enough to rely on the evidence of private security operatives alone, and what quality of evidence should be required? And aren’t we in danger of undermining the basis of English law, which assumes the defendant to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’?

The popular papers might capture the imagination by conjuring up mental images of summary justice, and the doling out of swift public retribution, but I don’t think we should be rebuilding the stocks any time soon. Popping down the shops for a couple of pounds of spuds and a ritual flogging might appeal to some, but I think cases should be heard in places that reflect the solemnity, majesty and weight of the law. That could be in a shopping centre, but hopefully not, as the papers would have us believe, in the front window of Tesco. We all know errors occur. Imagine yourself, for one moment, being apprehended by mistake. Even when your case is dismissed and you are found not guilty, your friends and business contacts will still give you a wide birth at the golf club, because mud sticks, and reputations are easily destroyed.

Lastly, and perhaps cynically, might this be the thin end of the wedge whereby the argument is advanced that because shoplifting puts a heavy burden on court time, retailers should pay for the courts?  Planning approval often comes with a 106 agreement stipulating that developers stump up cash for infrastructure improvements like roads and drainage. Why not police stations or courts? If we go down that route then the next logical step would be to hold driving offence hearings in motorway service stations. Now that would be justice!