Thinktanks call for greater autonomy in courts

By Catherine Baksi

Originally published in The Law Society Gazette

Courts should be given more autonomy to play a greater role in reducing offending, two thinktanks say in a joint report published today.

The Centre for Justice Innovation and the New Economics Foundation suggest that the government should reform the governance of courts to deepen local discretion and judicial empowerment.

Recommended measures include diverting low-level anti-social behaviour cases into community-led restorative justice panels; setting up specialist courts to deal with particular issues such as domestic violence; and providing advice on mental health, addiction, debt and housing issues at courts.

The report highlights initiatives being taken by some courts, such as the Swindon Neighbourhood Justice Panel, where volunteers meet weekly to hear cases of anti-social behaviour and low-level crime.

It also highlights the work of specialist domestic violence courts, established by the Crown Prosecution Service in 2005, which have additional resources to support victims and hold perpetrators to account. The courts identify domestic violence cases before they come to court and hear them in specialist sittings staffed by trained magistrates and prosecutors.

However, the report laments that examples of court innovation are still ‘too few and far between’, suggesting they are hampered in part by a lack of practice sharing between court practitioners and programmes.

‘Court managers and other key agents often lack the autonomy or opportunity to pursue local innovation or influence the decisions occurring around them in the justice system,’ it says.

It suggests giving court administrators and sentencer representatives a role in approving and monitoring the new prison and probation contracts, and changing the law to allow courts to review community orders.

The report notes the tardiness of the court process, which has increased in recent years. In 2010, it took an average of 128 days to conclude a case from the date of offence to its completion; in 2012 the average time had risen to 139 days.

The report accepts that courts do a ‘tough job, ensuring the rights of citizens are protected’, but says they are often seen as ‘conservative institutions, reluctant to embrace change’.

It suggests that courts are more than just an ‘instrumental institution, concerned only about processing cases’ but also ‘public institutions’ which can reduce crime by treating victims and offenders fairly and working with them to ensure that they never return to court.

The report says: ‘In acting with authority, swiftness, fairness, and with a focus on people as well as crimes, the courts can make more intelligent sentencing decisions which use resources in the most effective manner possible.’

If the principles are adopted, the authors suggest they provide the ‘key to a more efficient justice system’.

‘By focusing on the contribution it can make to reducing crime, a court can make better use of its own resources for greater public impact,’ it says.

Read the full report.