In the Media

60,000 hearings a year scrapped to speed up justice

PUBLISHED December 8, 2011

More than 60,000 hearings a year in magistrates? courts are to be scrapped under moves to speed up the criminal justice system, The Times has learnt.

The reform, to be announced today by Nick Herbert, the Justice Minister, will be introduced to courts in England and Wales over the coming year.

It means that thousands of trials a year involving offences such as theft, burglary and assaults will go directly to the Crown Court without the usual committal hearing before magistrates.

The move comes alongside a series of reforms being implemented following the summer riots, designed to bring offenders to justice more quickly. Judges and magistrates are to hold evening courts, guilty pleas will be fast-tracked and paper bundles scrapped and replaced by electronic files. The overhaul aims to make courts more ?user friendly? and boost public confidence in the justice system.

Dominic Grieve, QC, the Attorney-General, said that at present there was a ?great deal of waste in the system that largely comes from inertia?. He added: ?The riots highlighted what can be done when the criminal justice system really works hard together to process and streamline cases.?

The scrapping of committal hearings applies to middle-ranking offences which can be tried by magistrates or in the Crown Court. The hearings have already been abolished for 12,000 of the most serious Crown Court-only offences under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 but the same measure has not been applied for other offences.

A Ministry of Justice source said: ?Cutting out these unnecessary court hearings will make the criminal justice system more efficient and save vital court time. It?s astonishing that two thirds of cases in the Crown Court result in a guilty plea. This change will encourage people who intend to plead guilty to do it at an earlier stage and benefit victims and witnesses.?

Mr Grieve added that there were ?certainly lessons to be learnt from the riots about how you can introduce efficiencies into the system?.

With a cut of 24 per cent in the justice budget over four years, he said, ?asking judges to sit all night on a regular basis may be a bit difficult and does cost money?. But Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has said that he wants to explore evening courts that might run from 5pm to 9pm, which would allow victims and witnesses to attend after work.

Mr Grieve added that another innovation ? the first ?paperless? cases ? were now being presented in magistrates? courts using electronic tablets.