Failure to pay council tax or the television licence fee would be decriminalised under proposed law reforms welcomed last night by the Government.
Thousands of minor offenders could escape the stigma of appearing in court and instead be dealt with by penalty notices. The proposed changes, which would save millions of pounds in court costs and substantially reduce the recorded crime rate, were outlined yesterday by Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Leader of the House of Lords.
In a speech to the Police Foundation in London, Lord Williams said the criminal justice system was on the verge of a "massive change", which would promote "public confidence in the law".
The plans for a shake-up stem from a government-commissioned review of the courts system by Sir Robin Auld, a senior Court of Appeal judge. Lord Williams said: "One of the reforms Sir Robin is considering is the decriminalisation of some misconduct. For example, television licences and council tax enforcement could be taken out of the criminal courts, freeing them up to focus on more serious casework."
About 130,000 people a year are convicted of non-payment of television licences. Minor motoring offences could also be decriminalised. About 220,000 people are convicted of vehicle tax and registration offences each year and 110,000 are found guilty of failing to produce a driving licence.
Lord Williams said Sir Robin was also looking at the introduction of a third "intermediate" tier of the courts, where cases were heard by a district judge sitting with two lay magistrates.
Lord Williams admitted that the current court system was "too far removed from the public which it is there to serve". He added: "Many members of the public still regard the key characteristics of the system as being expense, incoherence and opacity."