Leading article: Faster justice is not necessarily worse

 

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The riots last August that left sections of London and other cities laid to waste have left their mark in a variety of ways even now that most of the damage has been repaired.

They spurred debates about the widening gap between rich and poor, about morality, about whether there was a criminal underclass. They prompted a reassessment of the way cities, including London, were policed, bringing a new emphasis on the visibility of the forces of law and order. And in some places they seemed – paradoxically perhaps – to sow seeds of the Prime Minister's elusive Big Society, as individuals called for reconciliation and communities came together in clear-up operations.

One of the more lasting changes, however, may be in the way justice is administered at a local level. After the riots, proceedings in magistrates' courts were speeded up and some courts sat through the night. Yesterday the Police minister, Nick Herbert, published a White Paper setting out how this emergency acceleration of the judicial process could be introduced on a more permanent basis. It includes proposals for more court proceedings to be conducted via video link, more flexible court hours, single magistrates sitting in places such as community centres, and an emphasis on "rapid and effective justice".

Some of the qualms of lawyers and politicians are understandable. Swifter justice must not mean substandard justice. But there is truth in the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied and the average wait before a case comes to court, which is currently around five months, is far too long. It is all very well for lawyers to argue that it takes time to collect all the papers, finalise dates that suit the defendant and the witnesses, and prepare the case. But there are the victims to consider, too, and the less time that elapses between the offence and the judgment, the more direct the connection will appear between punishment and crime. That connection is at the heart of justice being done, and being seen to be done. At present, it is often lost.

Care must be taken with plans for neighbourhood justice panels, to ensure that they keep the law central and do not become divisive. But the White Paper is on the right track. Swifter justice is in everyone's interest – except perhaps that of fee-hungry lawyers – and the judicial response to the riots showed that it could be done.

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