Leading Article: No confidence verdict on JPs

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SCENE: Crown Court, 10am. Half a dozen witnesses and a brace of counsel mill about, waiting for the trial to begin. Half an hour later, the defendant enters a guilty plea. The witnesses are sent home, and the weeks of work done by prosecutors and police into proving the defendant's guilt are needed no longer. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, this happened 24,651 times in the 1990-91 financial year, and cost the taxpayer some pounds 7m in CPS costs alone. On top of that is the cost of wasted police and judges' time.

In England and Wales, criminal offences are divided into three categories: serious crimes, such as murder or rape, where magistrates send the accused straight up to Crown Court; lesser offences, mainly to do with driving and parking, which are always dealt with summarily by the lay Justices of the Peace; and 'either-way' offences, which can be tried by either. It is in this last category that the defendant can demand to be heard in a Crown Court - even if, as in a recent case, he is accused of no more than stealing an Easter egg. Yet, since a jury's job is only to decide guilt, leaving the judge to hand down the sentence, it is never called if the defendant pleads guilty.

Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, believes that something should be done to stop defendants from opting for the Crown Court but then pleading guilty. In its evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, the CPS that she heads raised two different ideas for solving the problem. The first, giving the decision on who will decide the defendant's guilt either to prosecutors or to magistrates, would be dangerous. Prosecutors would make their proposals, with which magistrates almost always concur, not on the basis of which system would give the defendant the fairer hearing but on which would cost less or would bring a higher chance of a guilty verdict. At a stroke, an important safeguard against unfairness in the legal system would be thrown away. Defendants who believed the establishment was against them could no longer opt to be judged by their peers.

Alternatively, the CPS proposed that defendants should be asked to state their pleas at the magistrates' court, and allowed to opt for a Crown Court hearing only if they pleaded not guilty. To prevent tactical not-guilty pleas, a system of discounted penalties would give those who would in the end plead guilty an incentive to do so before JPs rather than before a judge. This would be more logical: it would result in a sharp cut in the time wasted by judges trying defendants who plead guilty to less important accusations, while still leaving intact the right to jury trial.

Why, though, do defendants choose to risk incurring the wrath of a judge by pleading guilty to a minor offence in a Crown Court? One of the reasons is well known: prosecution cases often fall apart during the delay before a Crown Court hearing, allowing the defendant to go free. But there is a second and much more worrying reason: defendants and their advisers often believe they will receive a better informed and more sympathetic hearing from judges than from JPs, who may be too inclined to believe police officers and too quick to dismiss pleas in mitigation. Those 24,651 cases should therefore be seen as a powerful vote of no confidence in the magistrates' courts. Until these concerns are put at rest, no change to the existing arrangements should take place.