Courts report sharp decline in magistrates' case totals

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THE DECLINE in the number of cases reaching magistrates' courts has been unprecedented, according to an Independent survey of courts around the country.

The survey shows:

In London, three magistrates' courts - Clerkenwell, South Western and Camberwell Green - said they had witnessed an overall reduction in their workload of about 10 per cent at the end of last year. However, clerks said there were signs that the number of cases had picked up slightly in recent weeks.

In Birmingham, the number of serious cases handled last January was 22 per cent lower than in the previous year: in Coventry, the reduction was even higher, at 25 per cent.

In Manchester, the number of serious cases, such as burglary and possession of drugs, heard by magistrates in the first two months of this year fell by 35 per cent compared with January and February 1992. The number of summary offences, such as kerb-crawling, prostitution and affray, dropped by 17 per cent.

There are other indicators of the decline. The number of files passed by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service has fallen for the past three years, down by 1.1 per cent in the 12 months to last December. In the last quarter of 1992, the fall was 3.1 per cent.

At the same time, the number of criminal legal aid orders fell by 13 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to the Lord Chancellor's Department. Lawyers said this was a firm indication of the number of offenders being brought to court.

However, there are big discrepancies between different regions. In Leeds, the number of serious offences heard by magistrates was 'only slightly down', according to Peter Whitehead, clerk to the justices. In West Sussex, there was no change in the figures.

Court administrators say the decreases provide a welcome relief to procedures that have traditionally been overcrowded and fraught with delays. An increase in cautioning does not fully explain the national decline in prosecutions. The Metropolitan Police has cautioned more people in recent years, but says there was no sudden leap last year.

The Home Office has for several years advocated increased use of cautions, but some police forces have been slow to adapt.