Courts tsar to oversee shake-up of London JPs

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The government is to appoint a £120,000-a-year "courts tsar" to oversee the biggest shake-up of London's courts for more than 100 years.

The government is to appoint a £120,000-a-year "courts tsar" to oversee the biggest shake-up of London's courts for more than 100 years.

The successful candidate will be given a £70m budget and will have responsibility for rooting out delay and incompetence in magistrates courts across the capital.

For the first time, all London's magistrates courts will be run by a single authority led by a new chief executive, working closely with the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who has appointed head-hunters, CoopersPriceWaterhouse, to interview suitable candidates for the new job, has said that he wants to end the "no blame" culture which he has identified in the criminal justice system.

He has also complained that there is not enough co-ordination between the courts and the other criminal and civil justice agencies.

The Government believes too many cases are adjourned or dismissed because of poor liaison between the courts, police, Crown Prosecution Service and Probation Service.

Lord Irvine, who has to approve the final candidates, has intervened to changed the selection criteria so that the candidate need not be a lawyer.

One of Labour's five key 1997 election pledges is to dramatically reduce the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders. While some of London's 35 magistrates courts are on course to meet this target others are not.

Across the capital, there are wide variations in time from an offence being committed and the defendant being sentenced. In Bromley it takes just 72 days from a crime being reported to the completion of the case while in Newham the average is 143 days.

Micheal Heap, who has been charged with setting up the shadow body to appoint the new chief executive, said London magistrates courts hear 1.5 million cases a year.

"The responsibility for delay can be fudged," he said. "Therefore, bringing together under one geographical area all the players, courts, police, CPS, will help focus responsibility. Under the new system, the courts will be able to speak with one voice.

"One of the first objectives in terms of policy will be to dove-tail youth offending times so that we can put resources where the problems are and move cases throughout the courts system," he said.

Critics of the change say that around 200 London magistrates who are currently involved in the running of the capital's courts will lose their influence. By April next year, the 22 existing Magistrates Courts Committees will be abolished and replaced by the new Greater London Magistrates Courts Authority, headed by the new "tsar".

Two of the committee members will be appointed by Mr Livingstone and another two will be chosen by London's local authorities.

Supporters of the new system say that since the London boroughs already contribute 20 per cent of the funding for their magistrates courts, councillors should have an in influence in how the courts are run.

The new "courts tsar" will also be able to help implement any reforms which arise from Lord Justice's Auld's review of the Criminal Justice System.