On Friday I attended the launch of the government white paper Swift and Sure Justice: The Government’s Plans for Reform of the Criminal Justice System, which included a keynote address from Nick Herbert, Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice. The white paper may be found here and a transcript of the Minister’s speech is available here.
The government’s plans for ‘swift’ justice consist mainly of measures to reduce the considerable period of time which often passes between an offence being committed and justice being dispensed. Among the paper’s flagship proposals is the widespread implementation of flexible courts sitting outside normal working hours and at weekends, taking inspiration from the round-the-clock courts which operated in the aftermath of last year’s public disorder. Technological changes in the courtroom, including case files being prepared electronically and the use of tablet computers by barristers – thus eliminating the need for cumbersome paper files – will also be rolled out more widely, with a proposed £10m investment in improving video links in courtrooms. The Minister argued that these new measures were necessary to tackle ‘a culture in the criminal justice system that has tolerated delay’, noting that ‘evidence tells us that the sooner an offender can be faced with the consequences of their crime, the lower the chances of them reoffending’.
The proposals for ‘sure’ justice aim both to tackle offending behaviour and to boost public confidence in the criminal justice system. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will have a key role here in commissioning victim services, and the Minister stressed that he would welcome PCCs playing a greater role in the criminal justice system, including taking on responsibility for commissioning services for offenders. There are also proposals to boost the visibility of magistrates ‘on the ground’, which could include single magistrates sitting outside of courts (in community centres, for example) or becoming involved as volunteers on Neighbourhood Justice Panels, developing community-based, restorative approaches. It seems fair to say that the Minister’s speech focused heavily on the rights of victims of crime and the need to redress a perceived bias in favour of defendants in court proceedings. He highlighted the government’s continued commitment to the more retributive aspects of the Rehabilitation Revolution, including rigorous work in prisons and a punitive element in all community sentences.
So what are the implications of ‘swift and sure justice’ for offenders and the organisations who work with them? Speeding up the length of time between an offence being committed and sentencing does offer some potential benefits, particularly in helping offenders to enter rehabilitative accredited programmes and work schemes more quickly. At present, prisoners on remand have to join the back of a lengthy queue if they wish to access these sorts of services, or even find meaningful work in prison. Increasing the length of time which prisoners on shorter sentences can spend participating in rehabilitative services and programmes (using days which would previously have been spent on remand) may also maximise the chances of a positive outcome.
However, the Minister’s argument that the courts often favour the needs of defendants over victims strikes me as overly simplistic, and neglects the fact that a large number of offenders appearing in court have specific mental health or communication difficulties. While vulnerable witnesses are currently entitled to special measures (e.g. aids to communication, examination through an intermediary) to assist them when giving evidence, this is left to the discretion of the court in the case of offenders. ‘Swift justice’ may undermine already limited provision, thus increasing the likelihood that vulnerable defendants will not fully understand proceedings or be able to communicate effectively in court. The differences between the experience of giving evidence or undergoing cross-examination via video link rather than in the courtroom – and the difficulties this may present for both vulnerable victims and offenders – also requires further investigation. This issues are explored further in Prison Reform Trust’s paper Fair Access to Justice?: Support for vulnerable defendants in the criminal courts.
In the case of offenders with particularly complex needs, it is crucial that enough time is allowed to complete a suitably detailed pre-sentence report (if requested), and for the judge to consider their sentencing options. If the possibility arises for both sides to take part in restorative processes, then this may also require adjournments for further evidence or expressions of remorse, or to allow Restorative Justice conferencing to take place.
Public confidence in the criminal justice system is of paramount importance, and faster and more efficient court proceedings may do much to reduce stress and frustration for both offender and victim. However, if ‘swift justice’ encourages an approach which favours speed over considered processes and overlooks the complex roots of most offending behaviour, then it runs the risk of poorer outcomes for both offenders and their communities.
Questions for discussion
Do you think that proposals for swift justice can aid the rehabilitation process?
What are the implications of these proposals for offenders with mental health or communication difficulties?
Could magistrates taking on a more visible role in their communities lead to better outcomes in addressing offending behaviour?
What do you think of the idea that PCCs could take on responsibility for commissioning services for offenders?
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