Petty offenders will be brought to court within 24 hours of being caught under plans to cut the delays and bureaucracy that are choking the criminal justice system. Teenagers who have broken the law for the first time will get the chance to avoid court if they apologise directly to their victims.
Under wide-ranging plans announced yesterday, offences such as television licence evasion or failure to have a valid MOT certificate, would be removed from courts. The time it takes for cases to be dealt with by magistrates, who handle 95 per cent of criminal prosecutions, has risen from 128 to 139 days over the past five years. Average waiting times for cases to come to trial in crown courts have increased by nearly two weeks, with wide variations.
The package, published by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, is aimed at driving delays down. It came a day after John Reid, the Home Secretary, announced moves to "rebalance" the criminal justice system in favour of victims. Lord Falconer set out plans for "next-day justice", which would see some offenders brought before magistrates within 72 hours. Graffiti artists, shoplifters, vandals, noisy neighbours and people caught with dangerous weapons could face high-speed appearances.
Lord Falconer wanted to set up "courts on the move", in town halls or community centres. The plan aims at bringing justice "closer to local people", particularly in sparsely populated areas.
Pilot schemes will be set up in four police forces in the autumn, under which youths who commit a low-level crime will escape a court appearance if they say sorry. The programme set out plans to deal with 500,000 minor cases in a bulk-processing centre. Drink-fuelled offenders could be ordered to attend alcohol education courses rather than being fined.
Crown court procedures would be streamlined by eliminating unnecessary pre-trial hearings, dealing more effectively with early guilty pleas, and cutting the average number of pre-trial hearings from six to two.
It will extend the community justice programme - which combines judges, probation and support services under one roof - to 10 new areas. It already runs in Liverpool and Salford.
Lord Falconer said: "Too many cases take too long to come to court.
"Processes both in court and beforehand are often lengthy and arcane and take little account of the needs of victims and witnesses.
"The new measures mean that the criminal justice system, and in particular the courts, will be more responsive to concerns raised by local communities, reconnecting the criminal justice system with the public it serves."