‘Flawed’ Single Justice Procedure needs reform, say magistrates

The Single Justice Procedure (SJP) – which handles around 40,000 criminal cases every month – needs reform if it is to be seen as fair and transparent, according to the Magistrates’ Association.

Mar 27, 2024
By Paul Jacques

The SJP allows magistrates’ courts to deal with minor offences, such as driving without car insurance or non-payment of the TV licence fee, without the need for a court hearing.

However, this has resulted in vulnerable people being prosecuted behind closed doors without being present or having any legal representation, according to media reports.

The Magistrates’ Association found that many of its members were uncomfortable with the SJP process as it currently works, and a significant proportion feel they do not always get as much time as they need to properly consider each case.

Although training on the SJP for magistrates is available, this is largely focused on how to use the system and does not emphasise that the SJP is a judicial process in which magistrates can exercise their discretion, as they do with cases heard in court.

In a major intervention, the Magistrates’ Association, which represents more than 12,000 magistrates in England and Wales, has published its new position on the SJP and makes 12 recommendations to improve its operation, transparency and fairness.

The Magistrates’ Association said the paper reflects “hundreds of its members’ insights” into hearing SJP cases over the past eight years since it was introduced, and “responds to recent interest from the media on the SJP’s impact on defendants, especially vulnerable and elderly people”.

Mark Beattie JP, national chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We believe that the principle of the SJP is good. Every year it spares thousands of defendants the ordeal of having to attend court for minor offences, and it allows for more efficient use of court time, which means speedier justice and a focus on more serious offences.

“However, it is not a perfect system. While the vast majority of cases are handled effectively by the SJP, our members – magistrates who decide on SJP cases – have told us about flaws in the way it operates and the harm that this can have on some of society’s most vulnerable people.

“It is clear to us that reform, as well as additional investment in training and transparency, is needed, to restore public confidence in the SJP.

“This is why we have made a total of 12 recommendations to change the SJP and make it fairer, more consistent and more open.”

The recommendations include:

  • Making it a requirement that prosecutors (the agency that is prosecuting someone, for example, TV Licensing or the DVLA) see all pleas and mitigations from defendants before the cases are heard by the magistrate;
  • Reviewing and improving the training that magistrates receive before they can sit on SJP cases. Training must emphasise the ability of magistrates to use their discretion fully and without reservation, including the ability to refer cases back to the prosecuting authority;
  • Safeguarding the SJP process so that neither magistrates nor their legal advisors feel any pressure to process cases more quickly than they want to;
  • The Government should make provision for SJP sittings to be observable by accredited journalists;
  • Boosting transparency by publishing more data on the SJP, such as how many defendants plead guilty, how many make no pleas, and how many ask to come to court, nationally and broken down by region;
  • Undertaking research on how improvements can be made to the process for the vulnerable, including those with learning difficulties, communication challenges, or who may be less able to engage with the process; and

• Improving communication, through a review of the paperwork sent to defendants, to make it simpler and easier to understand.

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