The government are introducing these new measures following the response of the courts in the aftermath of the August 2011 riots. Courts across England and Wales were open for longer hours, some courts even sitting at night in an attempt to deal with the large number of people being processed. The initiative arises from the government's white paper 'Swift and Sure Justice' published in July. The purpose of the initiative is to 'modernise' criminal justice services, speed up the court procedure and provide for a better public understanding of how the system works and involving local communities in dealing with low level offenders.
The measures to be introduced include extending the hours of Magistrates' Court sittings and increasing and maximising the use of video link facilities. It is intended that there will be pilot schemes launching in 48 areas over the coming weeks each scheme testing at least one of the proposed measures. The pilot also proposes extending the operating hours of the Magistrates' Courts both during the week and including weekend opening. There are also proposals to assist the operation of the courts by allowing initial hearings to be staged by video link when a defendant is detained at the police station outside normal court sittings.
It also proposes the use of neighbourhood justice panels which intend to involve locals deciding how offenders should make amends for low level crime. This scheme has already been tested in Sheffield, Norfolk and Somerset and is being tested in a further 15 areas.
The Prime Minister David Cameron said that the public wanted to see speedy justice, and that if it was possible in the wake of the riots then "let's make sure we do it all the time". It was indicated that on average nearly 5 months pass between an offence taking place and a sentence being passed and this is despite the fact that many cases are either uncontested or do not proceed to a full trial. Critics however have expressed considerable concerns about the staffing costs and logistics involved in this new approach. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has said it will not come cheaply and asked the government to explain how the system would be funded. Significant cuts have been made to the budget for the criminal justice system, and specifically significant cuts to the legal aid budget which funds the majority of criminal cases. Critics are also concerned that justice could be overlooked with the focus on the speed of the system.
In Essex recent planned extra sittings on a Saturday have been cancelled due to the lack of available work.
Some consideration should also be given to the fact that the vast majority of criminal defence lawyers already work a full day five days a week and are on the court duty rota which also provides a duty solicitor to those appearing before the Magistrates Court on a Saturday morning for remand hearings, and which also covers the supply of a duty solicitor for remand hearings for those appearing in court on bank holidays. The only days within the year that do not have a court sitting to deal with remand cases are Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. Solicitors, both prosecutors and defence, are routinely appearing for court hearings out of hours already. This of course is in addition to their responsibilities as police station duty solicitors and providing a service to their own clients who are arrested and interviewed out of office hours. It is difficult to see how much more work criminal lawyers can be required to do for their ever decreasing fees.
Not only will the new initiative have to provide funding for defence solicitors and prosecutors required to attend court for these additional hearings but also Magistrates, court clerks, cells staff and the other associated services who are required to attend court for every sitting.
Whilst a scheme for additional sittings arising from exceptional circumstances such as 2011 riots can perhaps be justified, it is difficult to see how the scheme is to be funded on a regular basis even if the staff can be found to facilitate it.