‘The recent riots showed us what the criminal justice system can achieve. Dedicated police, prosecutors, courts, probation and prisons staff worked closely together around the clock. Over 1,600 cases have already been brought before the courts; some were literally resolved in a matter of hours and many within days of arrest.
‘Such sharp contrast with the usual pace of justice should make us ask questions. The average time between an offence being committed and disposal of a case in magistrates’ courts is 140 days. Even relatively simple, uncontested motoring cases take nearly this long.
‘Despite repeated promises to put victims at the heart of criminal justice, many face cases that take weeks, if not months, to come to court, with frequent interruptions in proceedings. Only four out of every ten cases in magistrates’ courts go ahead on the planned day. Too often cases never reach a satisfactory conclusion. Unlike other public services, approval of the criminal justice system goes down when it is experienced.
‘Delays occur in a system set up for trials when the majority of cases end with a guilty plea. A long, drawn out process, with cases being passed back and forth between agencies and players, is neither effective nor proportionate for relatively minor offending.
‘But there is also basic inefficiency. While the rest of the world embraces electronic technology, the criminal justice system likes to use paper - lots of it. Multiple files are prepared by different agencies. Highly trained police officers waste time photocopying documents. IT systems do not link to each other.
‘There is little accountability in the system, compounded by its lack of transparency. Criminal justice is viewed as the most remote of our public services - except that it’s not a single service or system at all. Piecemeal change is not the answer in an already fragmented organisation. The whole operation of criminal justice needs fundamental reform.
‘First, we must bring justice into the 21st Century. By next April, we are requiring the entire criminal justice system to go digital, with secure electronic transfer of case files between the police, prosecutors and courts, and a reduction in the number of times that the same information has to be captured or compiled.
‘We are extending the use of virtual courts, allowing defendants to appear in court from police or prison cells by video link. Now the same technology is being tried to allow police officers to give evidence from their stations, so that officers need not waste hours hanging around court buildings.
‘Second, we want to reduce administrative duplication. Experience of the riots highlighted this as one of the most critical aspects to speeding up justice. It doesn’t make sense for case files to be prepared by more than one agency. London has already seen the successful integration of case management between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, saving time and money. We aim to see streamlined case administration across almost all of the country by April 2013.
‘Third, we are determined to reveal the performance of the criminal justice system so that agencies can be held to account. Last week we announced an ambitious transparency agenda. Our plans to begin televising court proceedings attracted much attention. But there were other equally radical commitments, for instance allowing the public for the first time to compare the performance of their local courts, and to see how many trials were ineffective and why.
‘Our crime mapping website, www.police.uk, has been a phenomenal success, attracting over 430 million hits since its launch at the beginning of this year. At one point during the riots visits to the site doubled, with some forces showing the images of suspects. From next May, justice outcomes will be added so that people can see not just the crimes, but how they are dealt with. The protection of victims will always be paramount, but we will not let bogus claims about the rights of offenders stand in the way of common sense information.
‘This is not the limit of the transparency agenda: it is just the beginning. Public confidence relies on justice being seen to be done, and visible justice is of our system’s longest-standing principles. Only when justice is opened up will we have the information and power to demand better performance.
‘Fourth, we need to learn from the response to the riots and see where justice could normally be done more effectively. We saw courts sit through the night, and the Magistrates’ Association have pointed out that many of their lay members might prefer to work in evenings or at the weekends.
‘Straightforward cases were identified and prepared more quickly. We need to see how effective triage could be applied so as to fast track cases in future, and we need to consider ways to deter unnecessary delay. Swift justice is currently the exception, but it should be the rule. We need to challenge the idea that greater speed would necessarily require more resources. More efficient systems should cost less. We already have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world.
‘Some severe sentences were rightly handed down in response to mass acts of looting and violence, where it is imperative that such behaviour is deterred. Such sentences were exceptional. But the lesson is that sure justice, where the consequences of offending are swiftly brought home to the criminal, is effective justice.
‘So we are challenging community sentences which are too weak, insisting that offenders on community payback work proper hours and undertake demanding tasks. We are making prisons places of work. We are pioneering payment by results in the penal system to break the cycle of re-offending.
‘We are also reviewing the effectiveness of out of court disposals, such as cautions and penalty notices for disorder, which have seen a huge expansion, accounting for a third of cases brought to justice. These can be useful tools to deal with low level offending. But there have been real concerns about how they are being used. If penalties and fines are wrongly used or go unpaid, a mockery is made of justice.
‘For too long the aim has been to divert offenders from the criminal justice system. Of course we want to divert people away from crime. But once offences are committed, they must be dealt with properly. So we are exploring a role for robust restorative approaches, where offenders make amends to victims, in a new form of ‘neighbourhood justice’.
‘The response to the riots showed us the power of community action when people come together in a shared determination to look after their streets. ‘Neighbourhood justice’ could involve magistrates, returning them to a central role in their local communities, and volunteers working with the police. This would not be an alternative to the formal criminal justice system, but a carefully guarded return of power and responsibility to communities to resolve less serious crimes quickly and rigorously.
‘The riots saw local criminal justice agencies and people pull together as never before. We must draw on that positive experience to transform justice. We can be proud of the fundamental principles of fairness, independence and due process that characterise our system. But that shouldn’t excuse its inefficiency or weaknesses. Justice should be swift, sure and seen to be done, or it is not done at all.’