In the Media

When crime is a community affair

PUBLISHED September 24, 2006

Frances Gibb visits Britain's first 'people's court' a year after it was set up in Liverpool and finds it friendly, efficient and achieving a positive effect 

THE COURT in North Liverpool looked like any other. But Judge David Fletcher sat without his robes; and, more strikingly, engaged the defendants in the dock in conversation. Some were praised for keeping up with their hours of unpaid community work ordered by the court previously: ?Well done ? this is a massive improvement?; or: ?A round of applause ? you have really kick-started this order.? Others received a stern warning that they were at the end of the line: ?We?ve been here before, and before. If you breach the order again, there?s little left I can do [other than custody].?

This is Britain?s first community justice centre, where Judge Fletcher, its sole judge, was hearing that day?s diet of some 50 cases. It is just one year since the court ? set up at the end of 2004 ? moved into its own dedicated courtroom in an old school in Kirkdale, one of the four boroughs it covers with a total population of 80,000.
But the differences from routine courts did not stop there. The judge clearly knew many of the offenders and the background to their problems. One, brought back to court for a breach of a community order, found his backlog of unpaid fines reduced to a realistic ?300, to be paid with ?5-a-week deductions ordered by the judge. ?Thanks a lot Mr Fletcher,? he shouted as he strode out. In another case, the judge spoke over the heads of lawyers to a father sitting at the back of the court about his daughter in the dock. ?How are relations between you?? and ?How?s her drinking going?? he asked. One mother found her ?inappropriate? community order removed altogether ? ?Provided you still go to Barnardo?s for help with handling your daughter.? At this point her mobile phone went off. ?Don?t worry,? said the judge. ?Off you go.?

The Liverpool community justice centre has been described as the first ?people?s court?. It is a radical experiment which, funds permitting, could be rolled out across England and Wales. The idea came from the Red Hook centre in Brooklyn with its aim of tackling crimes and antisocial behaviour in two novel ways: first, with direct help of local people, whether in crime prevention or tailoring punishments to what they want done ? cleaning up graffiti, removing rubbish and so on; and secondly by treating the underlying causes of offending along with the offence itself ? whether housing, debt, alcohol or drug abuse or domestic violence.

Red Hook has been credited with helping to clean up New York in the past ten years and has been hailed as a huge success. One year on, how is Liverpool faring?

?This is something that can only be judged over time,? Judge Fletcher says. ?It?s not a quick fix.? But, anecdotally, he believes that the ?holistic? approach is paying dividends and that repeat offenders do not come back as often.

That day, Judge Fletcher was sitting on a ?breach? court for offenders in breach of their community orders. Some he knew; others were already old cases before his centre was in business.

?Normally in these courts 80 per cent of the offenders don?t turn up ? they know that they are in trouble for breaching the terms of the order. We started with that level ? but now have a 90 per cent show rate.?

The result, he believes, is less custody ? because there is greater compliance.

The judge, 49, is from North Staffordshire, but went to Liverpool University so he has links with the city. A former solicitor with higher court advocacy rights, he was a full-time district judge at Sheffield Magistrates? Court before his present post. But he has already made his mark.

A key difference is that he sees the offenders through their punishment ? regularly reviewing them under special provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. At the same time, he can sit both as a Crown Court judge and as a magistrate: ?I can commit an offender to come before myself, sitting as a Crown Court, the next week.? This enables him to impose longer custodial sentences where required.

Mike Jones, a constable with the court?s pro-active security force ? a rare feature is the presence of police in court, who can be dispatched to bang on offenders? doors to bring them to court ? says it removes scope for lawyers to win needless adjournments. ?There?s less room for, shall we say,poetic licence by defence lawyers because each time they come back before the same judge and he just refers to his notes to see what was said last time. In most courts, it is different magistrates each time.?

The judge avoids custody if an offender can be dealt with in the community. Jeremy Rawson, a defence solicitor, said: ?He?s not a soft touch ? he won?t hesitate to send people down. But he?s more interested in rewarding progress if people respond, giving them that one last chance.? And he succeeds in getting compliance. ?He?s a very effective tribunal; he knows the offenders, who they are, and tries to get their consent and co-operation. They know he wants to see their progress.?

John McIlveen, a Liverpudlian who manages the probation and youth team, agrees. ?It?s not a softer approach. These people are not used to getting up, or getting to appointments with the doctor or dentist. It?s much harder for them to comply, because of the dysfunctionality in their lives. So to make them get out of be to report on time is much more challenging and demanding than three months inside.?

The court hears all cases committed within its boroughs except for serious offences ? the most violent or sexual offences that go to the Crown Court. All the not-guilty cases are heard in another courtroom in the centre by magistrates, who are drawn from a 60-strong panel.

That day, the judge imposed an eight-month detention order on a 17-year-old who had taken a car off on a joyride, ending with the police in pursuit, a crash and then run off ? his first custodial sentence. The boy will serve half. Afterwards the judge said: ?That is rare. It is hugely frustrating but there really is no choice in a case like this.? The boy had a previous conviction; and was in breach of an Asbo at the time.

The centre itself provides advice to the community at large on any problems people have; and the judge ? who was appointed by a panel including community representatives ? meets people every month to find out the problems. He is planning a fresh round of roadshows ? ?Meet the Judge? and mock-sentencing exercises. ?People are not hang ?em and flog ?em ? they realise that banging someone up only puts off the problem for a month or two and then they will be back.?

Ultimately, the success of the project will be measured in part by what the community thinks and the first evaluation is due at the end of the year.

Joan Patten, community enforcement officer, says it is important that the community does not think: ?We will solve all problems at a stroke.? But there have been successes: residents were exercised about motorbike riding and offenders now sentenced for this are being ordered to improve the local canal-side park where they have damaged the grass and plants. Specific hotspots can be targeted for Asbos; and offenders have been ordered to clean up their own graffiti; and to dredge the local canal and develop a children?s nature trial.

Such hands-on, tailor-made justice inevitably comes at a price. The project cost ?5.2 million to set up and its yearly running costs for the 50 staff, excluding the judge, is ?1.8 million. One criticism has been the cost: but those in the centre argue that it is more efficient than other courts, saving on hearings and time. All the main welfare agencies are based at the centre, with police, prosecutors and probation. A feature is that, before sentence, the judge may adjourn for a problem-solving meeting with the relevant agencies. They report back later that day, before sentence. ?Psychiatric reports, information about alcohol or drug
abuse, housing ? all these normally lead to adjournments,? McIlveen says. In April this year the judge used a new power to impose an ?alcohol treatment requirement? order; subsequently he spent a night away in North Wales with McIlveen to visit offenders on an alcohol rehabilitation programme to see how they were doing.

There are also the wider, unquantifiable savings in crime reduction within the community ? which may take years to assess. In the meantime, Judge Fletcher says that he hopes the idea ? or elements of it ? will be rolled out. ?I believe it should be. The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the eating. But my feeling is that it has been very successful. If these offenders start to wobble, they come back before me and I can remind them what I told them at the start of the sentence. That can be powerful stuff.?