What on earth is going on here?
Law and order campaigners have reacted with fury after it emerged that violent criminals could be handed on-the-spot fines of up to £100 rather than taken to court.
Plans drawn up by the Home Office propose an extension of fixed penalty notices from 2007 in a bid to ease pressure on the legal system.
The fines would be handed out for offences including assault, threatening behaviour, theft up to the value of £100, obstructing or assaulting a police officer, possession of cannabis and drunkenness.
Government sources confirmed the proposals were being considered, although it is understood they have not yet been put before ministers.
The story continues,
Cindy Barnett, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said the proposals made a mockery of the criminal justice system and downgraded the gravity of offences that should go before the courts.
The association had been given until next week to respond to the proposals, she said.
The Government released a wide-ranging set of proposals in July, entitled Delivering Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice, to shake up the way the courts handle cases.
Indeed it did. And here is what it had to say in section 7, Dealing with low-level offences outside the courtroom:
Magistrates’ courts deal with over 95% of all criminal cases, and their capacity is under increasing pressure in some areas. Numbers of summary cases have increased for the third year in a row, and delays have increased too. Moreover, performance improvements and technology such as automatic number plate recognition are enabling more offences to be detected and prosecuted. It is also clear that there are more effective ways of dealing directly with some forms of low-level offending, especially first-time offending, than the full court process [...]
In a consultation exercise in late 2004 and early 2005, magistrates told us that television licensing and summary motoring offences took up a disproportionate amount of court time and resource – see key facts below. Such cases, where there are no victims or public safety issues, need not be dealt with using the same process as offences such as burglary or assault. They are regulatory in nature and their evidence is largely documentary and could be delivered in a much more proportional way
So, having issued a ‘consultation document’ that purports to suggest dealing administratively with offences that are ‘regulatory in nature and their evidence is largely documentary’, unlike assault, which the magistrates have already told them they think — quite rightly — is best dealt with in court, the Home Office tries to ‘consult’ them again about proposals they’d rejected a year or so previously, and gives them a couple of weeks to think about it.
Quite apart from turning assault — assuming they mean, as I think they must, Common Assault as opposed to anything more serious — from an offence punishable by up to 6 months in prison into something similar to a parking ticket — what on earth are they doing trying to sneak it through with this charade of ‘consulatation’?
With the best will in the world towards police officers (which, most of the time, I do have, not least because when I’m not writing this my job does involve me in the criminal justice system), they aren’t the best people to decide on guilt or innocence, the appropriate charge or the penalty. That’s what we have courts for.
And offering people the inducement of an apparent soft option — ‘just accept this fixed penalty notice and pay up; that’ll be an end to it, and you won’t have to go to court, where you could get 6 months, and there’ll be nothing in the papers’ — that lands them with a criminal record for theft or assault is downright invidious. Theft and assault are very serious matters; let’s make sure people realise that they are by treating them as such.
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, fixed-penalty notices