Wait for courts cut to a month

THE TIME it takes for magistrates courts to deal with an offender has been reduced from three months to 30 days on average, it was claimed yesterday.

Ministers said efficiency measures, which will be introduced nationwide from November, include cutting bureaucracy and reducing the number of court appearances made by defendants. They said the moves would help to reduce the anxiety of victims and witnesses who have to attend courts.

The new Home Office minister, Charles Clarke, said the changes - which have been running in six pilot areas - could save the criminal justice system pounds 20 million a year.

He said: "Delay in the system is costly and emotionally draining for victims and witnesses. The guilty have their punishment deferred and the innocent face agonising anxiety as they wait to clear their name."

At the heart of the reforms is the idea of locating Crown Prosecution Service staff in police stations. The Government wants every major police station in the country to have its own Criminal Justice Unit (CJU), staffed by CPS caseworkers. In the pilot areas, this type of arrangement has meant that offenders can make their first appearances before the courts within one or two days, instead of four or five weeks.

The measures have also had a marked impact on the number of court appearances made by the defendant in the course of a case, particularly among youth offenders who faced an average of 2.2 hearings, compared to 3.9 before the changes were introduced.

The value of the reforms was underlined in a report by the accountants Ernst and Young, published yesterday. It said the changes could result in savings of over pounds 10m a year from the reduction in file preparation costs by police and CPS staff. A further pounds 14m could be saved by the reduction in the use of the courts.