Straw backs scheme for courts to sit at night

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The Independent Online

Magistrates' courts in big cities will be kept open at night to fast-track defendants, under reforms expected in weeks. Some courts may also be opened at weekends as part of a radical overhaul of the criminal justice system. The longer hours are aimed mainly atstopping persistent offenders committing further crimes while awaiting trial.

Magistrates' courts in big cities will be kept open at night to fast-track defendants, under reforms expected in weeks. Some courts may also be opened at weekends as part of a radical overhaul of the criminal justice system. The longer hours are aimed mainly atstopping persistent offenders committing further crimes while awaiting trial.

The Home Office is to set up pilot projects to open a few busy magistrates' courts in the evenings. Jack Straw will announce the changes, proposed in a review of the criminal justice system by Sir Robin Auld, a Court of Appeal judge.

The move for longer hours for magistrates' courts is backed by Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He also wants American-style 24-hour courts to help to tackle the rising street crime.

Sir John said he had seen the 24-hour system in New York. "When they are arrested they go straight to court, whatever the time, day or night," he said. "It saves time, and allows you to process them in a far, far quicker way. [With] some of these persistent offenders, these youngsters, society quite honestly needs a rest from them."

The expected changes will form part of the Home Secretary's 10-year crime plan, a central plank to the Government's general election manifesto. The overhaul is being drawn up by Mr Straw, Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, and Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney General.

The Government has promised to halve the average time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders from 142 to 71 days. But recent figures showed the average in October last year was 94 days.

Harold Mawdsley, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said that sitting in the evenings and at weekends would help to recruit people who did not have time to sit as magistrates during the week.

But he voiced concerns over magistrates sentencing people at "two in the morning" when they might not be able to concentrate properly. He conceded that getting defendants through a preliminary hearing as quickly as possible was a good thing. "At least it would get them fast-tracked. They would be in the system," he said. "But first of all, we must ensure that justice is done and the defendants are represented."

The civil rights group Liberty said it supported the idea, provided it did not compromise justice. Roger Bingham, the organisation's spokesman, said: "It would reduce the need for people arrested on a Saturday to wait until Monday until they get bail.

"If it provides more court time and flexibility so that cases get through quicker then it is a good thing, but it should not be a means to push things through in a hurry. You can't have speed at the expense of justice." But Sid Brighton, the chief executive of the Justices' Clerks Society, said that the majority of people were already taken before a court within 24 hours of arrest.

Other proposals in the Auld report are expected to include plans for a controversial new hybrid court consisting of a professional judge sitting with two lay magistrates who would be able to deal with thousands of cases that are at present sent to crown court for trial before a jury.

Juries would be reserved only for the most serious cases. Other expected proposals are the use of experts on jury panels in difficult cases, and the decriminalising of many minor offences, including the non-payment of television and vehicle excise licences and council tax, which would be dealt with by fixed penalties.