Can slow justice deal with these eye-watering cuts?

It takes an average of over four months to sentence in a case

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A bank robber was due to be sentenced at the Old Bailey yesterday for a series of armed raids that had netted him thousands of pounds. He had pleaded guilty – saving the cost and time of a jury trial. So when the police officers, the barristers, the judge, the probation officer arrived in court ready for a 10am hearing, it was in the expectation that he would be sentenced by lunchtime.

It did not happen. The robber refused to appear in court and the hearing was delayed to allow his legal team to speak with him in the cells. By the time that the hearing started – and he had been persuaded to appear in the dock – half the morning had been wasted. The CCTV pictures of the raids had to be shown to the judge to help him decide the length of the sentence but they stretched proceedings until lunch, when he had another case.

Everyone will have to come back today to finish it off – but nold bailot too early, so the prison van will have time to arrive, for the robber to be registered and finally brought up to the dock to start all over again.

For anyone working in the court system, waits and delays are part of the process. Some are inevitable, given the complexity of preparing cases which could have the outcome of taking away someone’s liberty. But many are not, like the video-links to prisons that inexplicably don’t work or transmit sound, or the security vans that go to the wrong court, bringing everything to a grinding halt.

The price of justice can be a high one. But the squeeze is on from planned government cuts.

The court system faces cuts of 38 per cent between 2012 and 2016, posing difficult questions for the administration of justice. A report out today examines how those savings can be achieved, and questions whether justice can be served by cuts at such an eye-watering rate.

The focus, by the Policy Exchange think-tank, is on the magistrates’ courts where 90 per cent of criminal cases are heard. They have limited sentencing powers, and the most serious cases are transferred to higher courts.

The report points out that it takes an average of four-and-a-half months from offence to sentence yet many of the cases are minor or uncontested. “There is no good reason for our criminal justice system to operate according to such a leisurely timetable,” it says.

There is flexibility in the system, as was shown when courts held all-night sittings to deal with suspects from the summer 2011 riots that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan. But some solicitors pointed out that the courts were generally so under-worked that the cases could have been accommodated in regular sessions.

“By mid-morning on most days, you would expect to see tumbleweed drifting down the court corridors, so bereft of work is the judiciary,” said one solicitor.

The Government embarked on a major court closure programme in 2010, closing 142 courts in England and Wales, but their rates of use have still fallen, according to the report. Fewer people are attending courts, owing to the falling crime rate and the use of other forms of punishment, such as cautions or on-the-spot fines to ease the pressure on the system.

The report calls for ‘justice hubs’, putting all the court services in one place, with ‘justice buses’ taking the magistrates out to serve local areas. It talks of setting up courts in libraries, vacant shops or leisure centres. It would certainly be one way of bringing life back to the High Street.

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