Leading article: Faster justice does not have to be worse

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The very public dispute between Eoin McLennan-Murray, of the Prison Governors' Association, and John Thornhill, of the Magistrates' Association, betrays the sectional interests of both sides.

Mr Thornhill maintains that magistrates' courts have done a stellar job in the wake of the riots and suggests lessons for the future. Mr McLennan-Murray, whose members have to cope with the consequences of the courts' decisions, says magistrates have indulged in a sentencing "feeding frenzy", pandering to popular emotion.

As a newspaper, we share Mr McLennan-Murray's qualms about the speed with which justice is being dispensed and the rate of imprisonment. We also ask whether custodial sentences are the best way of punishing rioters and, indeed, whether magistrates are on top form at, say, 2am. Justice Ministry figures show that almost 70 per cent of those brought to courts since the riots have been given jail sentences or remanded in custody; the figure for 2010 was 10 per cent. This is a big difference, even if some harsher sentences are already being reversed on appeal.

But Mr Thornhill has a point that should not be ignored, just because other questions are raised. In three weeks, magistrates have heard several thousand cases, by dint of working longer hours and requiring greater efficiency from all concerned. Yes, there have been problems – missing papers, poorly briefed lawyers and absent probation officers – but these, regrettably, are not unusual.

Against that, there have also been benefits in accelerating the process: events were still fresh in everyone's memory and the link between offence and court, often blurred by delay, was clear. Here, Mr Thornhill is right. Extraordinary circumstances have shown how the ordinary could be radically improved.

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