Thousands of minor court cases to be settled by post

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The Independent Online

People who admit evading council tax or watching television without a licence will be sentenced by post rather than in the magistrates' courts under government proposals outlined today.

Hundreds of thousands of minor motoring offences, including driving licence infringements and MOT breaches could also be settled by letter. Offenders who don't contest the allegation will be able to plead guilty by post in the same way speeding motorists already avoid a court hearing.

Ministers are concerned the lower end of the criminal justice system is being clogged up with millions of cases of minor crime or tax evasion. A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said that now, even when offenders admitted their fault, "the court is still required to hear details of the case before sentence is passed. It's not the best use of already stretched resources."

The total number of people sentenced in court reached a 15-year high last year. The figures were boosted by motorists being summonsed in record numbers to face charges of speeding, dangerous driving, driving while disqualified, not having insurance or road tax and seatbelt offences.

More than 1.5 million were jailed or fined by the courts in 2004, a rise of 4 per cent over the previous year and the highest total since the late 1980s.

Motoring offences that could be taken out of the court process include driving licence, MOT and road tax cases, which total about one million a year.

Last year magistrates also sentenced 120,352 television licence evaders and there were four million summonses for non-payment of council tax, with 2.5 million liability orders and 50,000 arrest warrants. In addition there were 400,000 summonses for non-domestic rates cases, with 200,000 liability orders and 3,000 arrest warrants issued.

Of the just under four million cases, more than half were uncontested, meaning more than two million cases could be removed from the court system by the measures.

The Government is not, however, proposing to remove cases against motorists who have driven without insurance because this is considered a serious offence that should be heard by the magistrates.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, will say in today's White Paper: "Cases take too long to come on. The process is too complex. We need to help magistrates to deliver for the law-abiding citizen."

On sentencing people in their absence, the paper says that defendants who fail to attend hearings "breed disrespect" for the courts and the rule of law. At present, JPs have discretionary powers to sentence an absent defendant but tend to issue arrest warrants instead. The paper encourages sentencing.