Magistrates' streamlining conference
QEII conference centre, London
Speech by Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Good morning. I am particularly delighted to be here today because we are here this morning looking at the success of the four pilots and discuss how we roll it out.
While the criminal justice system has improved considerably over the past few years – with more offenders being brought to justice, and a reduction in the number of ineffective trials, with further areas introducing problem solving courts and community justice – there has been considerable improvement and considerable commitment – there are still some common issues hindering the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts system.
Disproportionate time and money spent on minor offences; late disclosure of evidence by the prosecution; lack of adequate defence representation; unnecessary pre-trial hearings; poor case management and administration – all problems of process. But furthermore in some areas there has been a culture of acceptance around these inefficiencies
Somewhere down the line it is as if the process became distracted by three inch thick case files for the simplest of hearings. Over complexity has got in the way of delivering justice. It is not the hard working people who run the system, it is the system itself that is at fault.
But what is crucial here is that these are frustrations shared almost universally by everyone involved in the justice system. Frustrations that there is a universal desire to overcome. Across the country magistrates' courts have been tackling these issues in different ways – CJSSS was built on looking at what is working well, and seeing how what is working well could be combined with new ideas, in a new culture of working better together.
Some of the problems are easily fixed.
Through clear and constructive inter-agency communication, advance information actually being available in advance, greater familiarity with the cases being brought before the court. Simple things which make a real difference, and which are underpinned by everyone involved working better together – and accepting, as a given, that working better together is the only way to be successful.
CJSSS aims to improve the way cases are managed and dealt with through focusing on the things that make the justice system work well.
Firstly, improved prosecution preparation for first hearing. CPS and the police working together to ensure all relevant details are included in the advance information file. That is vital. Prosecutors should be familiar with the case they are prosecuting before the hearing. Efficiency will only come if prosecutors are confident and familiar with the information before them, and the detail of the case they are prosecuting.
Secondly, defence readiness for the first hearing. Similarly it is vital for the defence to have familiarity with the case. Obtaining the advance information file in adequate time before the hearing enables them to provide a defence based on knowledge, leading to a reduction in requests for adjournments to find out more, and more unnecessary information.
Thirdly, more effective first hearings. Through advance reading of the papers, judges, magistrates and legal advisers will be able to press for a plea, if appropriate, to be entered there and then. And in contested cases, they will be in a position to provide directions and identify key issues and fix a date for trial. Making the best possible use of the court’s time.
Fourthly, better out-of-court progression. After the first hearing, if its not resolved, regular meetings between the designated case progression officers in each agency can ensure that the issues identified at first hearing are being resolved as much as possible in advance of the second. Enabling trials to take place on time, without delay.
The resounding success of the four simple, speedy, summary justice courts in Thames, Camberwell, Coventry and West Cumbria provide the clearest demonstration yet of just what can be achieved when all of the agencies involved in criminal justice work together in a simpler, faster, more focused way.
Before I go any further, let me first pay tribute to every single one of you who has been involved in those four pilots.
Every time that I have visited the four areas, I have been impressed by your dedication and commitment and importantly your enthusiasm. I visited Thames last week and was overwhelmed by the fact that every person I spoke to was really eager for the CJSSS to work. From the court manager to the ushers to the District Judges.
I witnessed such enthusiasm because you – the people involved – know that it works, you can see that it works, you are making it work. Some people said this is a new way of doing business. Some people said it was the way things should always have been done. What you have shown is that what is better for the courts is better for communities.
CJSSS has demonstrated a new way of working. A new simpler set of processes and procedures that is making best use of the court and the court’s time. The results are impressive.
These are really significant achievements – and they are consistent across each of the four areas. The court should be the place where decisions are made and not justice delayed. But the success of the pilots is far more than better processes – its success has been borne out of establishing a new culture in the courts.
I am very conscious of the pressures that magistrates' courts face. The volume of work that passes through is simply enormous – you deal with more than 95% of all criminal offences, handling around 2 million cases per year. Such a caseload makes it ever more vital that we have a system that delivers effective and timely justice.
And as Thames, Camberwell, West Cumbria and Coventry show – CJSSS works.
It is collaborative; with magistrates and the district judiciary taking a lead, working with the police, with defence, with the prosecution, with court staff, clear of the benefits, the mutual benefits of such an approach. Each component of the justice system is dependent on the other for delivering these improvements and for making sure that time is not wasted.
That it is efficient is demonstrated by the statistics. Cases are progressing much faster, with less of an administrative burden, with more decisive outcomes.
It establishes much greater trust; communities have confidence that justice is done in their areas. Communities, criminals and the courts need to realise that the clock is ticking from the moment an offence is committed. When cases are delayed, community confidence is lost. I despaired when I heard that in some areas in the country police officers were appearing in court 15-18 months after a crime was committed. A year and a half. A year and a half during which communities, victims and witnesses, feel that justice is eluding them, or the justice system is failing them in some way.
Delivering justice is a public service. And like other public services it must be responsive of the needs of the public. Just as reducing waiting lists in the NHS is part of the duty of care, so too must speeding up the criminal justice system. The courts cannot be a pinch point.
To take the NHS analogy slightly further, when seeing a GP or waiting for an operation – you expect the same high standards and same outcome at the end be that treatment or advice. The process by which you get there however will often determine how much confidence you have in that system. We must do more to improve people’s experience of justice. Which means eliminating unnecessary delay, which means justice being done and being seen to be done.
The NHS comparison ends, however, as the improvements to the way that the magistrates’ courts operate have not come about through increased investment. The four areas prove that substantial improvements can be made and are being made simply by doing things differently.
For those of you who have not yet implemented CJSSS in magistrates courts I hope that these results have whetted your appetite. You will have experienced the same frustration that I have heard right around the country. While the effect on practitioners is frustration and occasionally demoralisation – the effect on communities is even more damaging.
Every community and every magistrates' court should benefit from faster, more effective more focused justice. This is why today I am announcing that CJSSS will be implemented in each of the 360 magistrates' courts in England and Wales.
Our ambition is clear, effective magistrates' courts working in confident communities.
Learn from the four areas; today we are publishing a thorough evaluation how they applied CJSSS in practice.
CJSSS is not a panacea; there is much work yet to be done in improving our justice system. But it is a start, and a very successful one. In improving the processes and procedures and establishing a culture of simple, speedy, summary justice, everyone’s interest is served.
The real benefit lies not in the courtroom but outside of it. Among the public who we are all here to serve. CJSSS will improve their experience of and confidence in justice - the victims and witnesses, the communities, all of whom are affected by crime. I want it, you want it, above all, the public want it. It is now down to you to deliver it.
We can do this without extra money, the four areas are testament to that, we can do this without extra resources, we can do this without changing the law. It requires a culture change – all it needs to succeed is for all those working in the CJS to have the confidence to deal with cases in the way the four areas have. This way we can have a courts system that is fit and functioning for the 21st Century.
Your courts want this, your communities want it - and I have every confidence that you have the commitment to make it work.