Judges to hold ‘problem-solving courts’ for drug offenders’

Judges to hold ‘problem-solving courts’ for drug offenders’

4 December 2015

Originally published in The Times 

Frances Gibb

Judges and magistrates will take on the role of helping offenders beat their drug or alcohol addictions in American-style courts, the justice secretary proposes.


Michael Gove is in talks with the judiciary over the setting up of American-style specialist or “problem solving” courts – which would aim to tackle problems such as domestic abuse, drugs and alcohol, alongside crime.


The justice secretary told The Times that judges are “very supportive” when he proposed the idea after his recent trip to the States to see such courts as Red Hook, New York.


Under the plans, judges and magistrates would play a far more active role in helping with and monitoring the rehabilitation of offenders.


Rather than just see an offender once, during trial and sentence, the judge sees the individual several times when they report back on progress with specific treatment for drug addiction, for example, or in their search for work or housing.


Mr Gove told the Magistrates Association this week he was impressed after his visit to the States with the potential of “these ‘problem-solving courts’ to contribute to crime reduction and personal redemption”.


He told magistrates that he was aware that many of them “care a great deal about the rehabilitation of the people who appear in front of you in court and want to play a bigger part in that process”.


Previous efforts to establish so-called “problem-solving” courts have failed to get off the ground because of reservations from the judiciary.


Mr Gove is anxious but also optimistic, that this time they are on side with the idea. “We can only do this with the support and collaboration of the judiciary and the Lord Chief Justice,” he added.


“They are very supportive of the idea but we most ensure this proceeds with the Lord Chief Justice leading it as much as me – and also the magistracy.”


The idea of problem-solving courts has been pioneered and successfully promoted in the family courts, chiefly by one judge, Judge Nicholas Crichton, at a county court in London. A pilot in a Liverpool magistrates’ court ran for a few years but was not extended nationally.


The proposal coincides with the publication of a report due out next week from the think tank, Centre for Justice Innovation, calling for a network of such courts to be established – particularly for domestic abuse.


It highlights evidence that the criminal courts are failing to address domestic abuse, and says that despite a 34 per cent rise in reported incidents to the police since 2007, victims are often reluctant to testify, and find the system confusing and intimidating.


Another problem is that witnesses may have to appear in several different courts, moving between criminal, family and civil.

They call for the radical departure of setting up “one judge, one family” domestic abuse courts in which one judge would hear criminal, civil and family cases under one roof.

Offenders would be monitored by the judge throughout their sentence and treatment.

Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation and the report’s author, said: “Even though total crime is down, we’re seeing the rise in reporting of many more complex crimes like domestic abuse.

“It’s unacceptable that when victims come forward, they’re required to turn up at different courts multiple times to get justice. “

Specialist domestic abuse courts, he said, had been shown to reduce delays, reduce re-offending and increase victim perceptions of fairness.

Other key proposals are to enhance the role of magistrates in local communities so that they oversee restorative justice and dispute resolution and hear more cases on line.

It also proposes a new combined community/custodial sentence, dubbed “swift and certain.” Offenders are supervised in the community but sent swiftly to prison for failure to comply with any orders or programmes – sometimes just for a few days.