The country’s most senior judge has called for fewer offenders to be jailed. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said that the prison population, more than 85,000 in England and Wales, was “very, very high”. There are concerns, he told MPs, that it could rise further.
Defendants who go through criminal “online” trials will be under pressure to accept charges and sentences, the charity Centre for Justice Innovation warned in a response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation paper “Transforming our Justice System”.
An online criminal courts system must be accompanied by guidance written in ‘plain English’ so that defendants clearly understand the consequences of their pleas, a thinktank has said in response to the Ministry of Justice and judiciary’s £1bn vision paper.
The idea of ordinary members of the public deciding 95 per cent of criminal cases seems radical. Yet that is local justice, as operated by magistrates for 650 years in courts up and down England and Wales. Now, though, the system faces something of an existential crisis: numbers and the workload are in decline; courts are being closed and new young recruits are in short supply.
The Ministry of Justice and senior judiciary recently put forward reform plans, representing a profound change in how justice may be done in England and Wales in the future. Since the spending review commitment of £700m for court technology last year, details of what reform really means – beyond new iPads in court and a war on paper files – have been much anticipated.
The public will get to love online courts. So predicts Lord Justice Briggs, the author of controversial proposals for the future of civil disputes in which his centrepiece is a new virtual court for settling claims of up to £25,000.
A paper, Problem-solving courts: a delivery plan, estimates that trialling three existing and seven new courts in the criminal system between 2017 and 2020 would cost £2.6m. The Ministry of Justice’s current ambition, set out last month in its £1bn transforming justice programme is only to ‘continue to explore’ the use of problem-solving courts.
As people who believe that our justice system should tackle the root causes of crime and social harm, we urge the new lord chancellor to pilot and support new specialist “problem-solving” courts. Her predecessor pledged to trial a range of such courts, including specialist courts for female offenders, but the momentum appears to have slowed.
Ten new US-style problem-solving courts – aimed at reducing reoffending – should be established across England and Wales as soon as possible, a legal charity has recommended.
The initiative, which involves judges regularly reviewing whether those already convicted are turning around their lives, was championed by the last justice secretary, Michael Gove, but is in danger of losing momentum, according to the Centre for Justice Innovation.