In the Media

We must reform our justice system

PUBLISHED September 16, 2012

For at least 20 years, successive governments have promised to reform and modernise Britain's criminal courts so that they dispense justice more efficiently, there are fewer delays, and victims do not have to rub shoulders with perpetrators. So far, none of the attempts at reform has succeeded. As we report today, when Sir Paul Stephenson, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, observed the proceedings at Westminster Magistrates' Court with this newspaper on one day last week, he concluded that the courts are "slow, bureaucratic and hugely frustrating".

People who have attended a criminal court, either as a witness or a defendant, and spent hours waiting, only for the case to be adjourned because documents have been mislaid or people have failed to turn up, will recognise the truth of Sir Paul's judgment. Many of the trivial cases that continue to clog up the system should not be dealt with in court. Sir Paul is surely right to wonder what a rickshaw driver who was charged with "obstructing traffic" was doing in the dock, when his case could have been handled easily without using the very laborious procedures of a criminal court.

Sir Paul has high praise for the magistrates, whose decisions he thinks are for the most part fair, although he is surprised when the sentence for violent behaviour is a fine, and when the punishment for driving without insurance is that the perpetrator - who has already demonstrated his reluctance to obey the law - is handed a sentence banning him from driving for a mere six months. But his most serious criticism is reserved for the fact that so many defendants of "no fixed abode" are given bail. It is completely predictable that such people will fail to turn up for their court hearing and, not surprisingly, most do not: this wastes everyone's time, and the resources of the court.

Reform of the court system is an urgent priority. Chris Grayling, the new Justice Secretary, needs to take steps to modernise it so as to diminish delay, increase efficiency, and make sure that the process is not intimidating for witnesses. We do not underestimate the size of his task, or its difficulty. But it surely cannot be beyond an energetic and committed minister to ensure that procedures are changed to minimise the chances that defendants will fail to turn up. We feel confident that, should he put his mind to it, Mr Grayling can succeed where his predecessors have so dismally failed.