The criminal courts are in meltdown with a severe cash crisis forcing offenders to be sentenced on the ground of cost, not justice, magistrates say.

n an indictment of the Government?s penal policy they have told Tony Blair in a letter that his vision for criminal justice is failing and that a string of initiatives has ?severely undermined public confidence? in the justice system.

Magistrates have already told ministers that sentencing proposals allowing probation officers to decide if an offender merited a community penalty or a fine were ?wholly unacceptable?. Sentencing must be by the courts, they say, and not by probation officers on the basis of ?saving money?.

Court closures, crumbling and even rat-infested buildings, staff shortages and funding cuts across the justice sector are delaying or stopping cases and adding to inefficiency, they say.

Plans from ministers to reform sentencing will lead to offenders being punished on cost grounds, not according to what courts believe to be just. The greater use of cheaper punishments such as fixed penalties and conditional cautions are driven by ?financial grounds rather than judicial grounds?, they say.

The unprecedented attack from the normally low-key magistrates comes in a dossier which lists a series of examples of how the system is failing.

Cindy Barnett, chairman of the association, said: ?Anger has really spilt over about the cost-cutting effects of government initiatives. We accept that there are enormous pressures from, for example, the legal aid budget and that funding can?t be unlimited.

?But it is a basic necessity. Quality justice can only be provided by a properly resourced court service. Lack of proper support now severely threatens and debilitates the delivery of a modern well-run service.?

Magistrates, she added, had just been told that, on top of the present crisis, the Lord Chancellor had just announced that the courts? budget was to be cut in real terms by 3.5 per cent every year for three years.

?Magistrates are members of the public and come from the communities they serve,? Mrs Barnett added.

?They tell us that the vision is no more than a dream, a dream that will never become a reality unless sufficient resources are provided to the courts.?

They attack many of the current proposed reforms as based on cost, saying that they send out a message that ?independent sentencing designed to

protect the public is to be restricted because of lack of resources?. They say that the ?wholesale closure of courthouses? ? 148 have shut since 1995 ? means victims, witnesses, defendants and solicitors have to spend much more time and money travelling.

Computer systems were still ?severely out of date with no prospect of immediate improvement?, they add.

The result is ?continuing delays in processing cases due to incorrect information being provided to defence solicitors by police and prosecution, files either in complete or not even available at court?.

Justices? clerks, the principal legal advisers to magistrates, have been cut from 200 to 70 in the past ten years and are set to face further reductions.

Legal aid, which is financed from the same budget as the courts, is also causing ?grave difficulties?. ?The extent of the financial cuts that have been made in recent years makes it impossible for the system to perform adequately,? they say.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said last night: ?We are implementing an extensive programme of suppport for magistrates when we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts through work which will deliver simple, speedy and summary justice.?

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