At long last the Government is looking into ways of speeding up the administration of criminal proceedings by abolishing committal hearings, and not before time. They believe that this will save as much as five to six weeks of fannying around in the magistrates’ courts before the accused is sent to the Crown Court.
This reform applies to “either way” offences, where the accused can elect trial by jury, and under the existing system, the magistrates were obliged to consider the strength of the evidence before committing to the Crown Court.
I have argued before about the absurdity of “either way” offences, and in particular theft, where an accused can elect trial by jury regardless of the value of the goods involved. This means that somebody accused of stealing a packet of peanuts from a supermarket shelf can elect trial by jury, and frequently does so to delay their hour of judgment.
Some years ago, the Government of the day imposed a ‘value’ limit on the offence of criminal damage, so goods or property damaged to the value of less than £5000 had to be tried in the magistrates’ court. It escapes me completely why a similar ‘value’ limit is not imposed on the offence of theft, to catch the peanut thief and others accused of petty theft.
Needless to say, local solicitors who have a vested interest in fannying around the magistrates’ courts are opposed to the change, citing the old chestnut that such a reform might threaten to compromise the interests of justice. Poppycock!
Related to this reform, I am pleased to note that it is broadly welcomed by the Magistrates’ Association. The Chairman also raises, yet again, the sentencing powers of magistrates, which are still limited to six months’ imprisonment. He argues, and I agree, that their powers should be increased to twelve months. This change found its way into the Criminal Justice Act 2003 but was never implemented, and more the pity. This means that where the magistrates convict in summary proceedings, but feel that their sentencing powers are insufficient, they must commit the accused to the Crown Court. More delay, and more fannying around.
By increasing their sentencing powers, more criminal cases would start and end in the magistrates’ courts, the cases would be handled more effectively and more expeditiously, and the saving in court time and expense would be considerable.
Damien Green, the Criminal Justice Minister, who must have been appointed under cover of darkness, as I thought he was something to do with immigration, needs to grasp the nettle. This reform is a step in the right direction, but let him boldly go where no man has been before, and stop fannying around.