The new Single Justice Procedure is billed as an efficiency drive but it raises concerns about the principle of open justice with its statutory exception to the obligation to sit in open court.
Introduced in April 2015 under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 and Criminal Procedure (Amendment No 2) Rules 2015, this procedure allows adult defendants accused of summary-only, non-imprisonable offences to be tried and sentenced administratively, before a single lay magistrate without the need for any kind of hearing. In terms of sanctions, a single justice can impose a financial penalty, endorse/disqualify from driving or impose an order of absolute or conditional discharge.
The provisions do not give a definitive list of offences to fall under the procedure. It is expected the process will be used for “low level regulatory offences” with, TV licence evasion, various non-imprisonable motoring offences and rail fare evasion all falling within scope. A pilot project is underway in Lavender Hill Magistrates Court, South London. Up to 3000 cases are reported as having taken place under the pilot scheme so far.
The procedure is not mandatory but is available where the accused waives the right to an open hearing, either expressly or by failing to respond to the process. The intended aim is to save court time and expense to provide, it is argued, greater flexibility as to timing and location. The case will be listed on daily case lists, but the details will not be read aloud in court. Prosecutors will not attend court for uncontested cases.
Where a defendant makes a declaration that they did not know of the single justice procedure notice or proceedings the proceedings are rendered void. The declaration must be made within 21 days of the defendant finding out about the single justice procedure notice or the proceedings, and they must also respond to the single justice procedure notice. A plea must be entered. Where this is a guilty plea the defendant must expressly request an oral hearing.
The Ministry of Justice states that with these procedural safeguards in place the procedure does not prejudice the right to a fair trial. Furthermore it has dismissed concerns about lack of access for the media and public, expressing doubt as to whether in practice such cases would draw attention. Concerns have been raised, however, with the Magistrates Association itself stating in the legislative debates: “it is a principle of British justice that cases are heard ... in public - we would be sorry to see this principle abandoned”.
With court closures recently announced, it is clear that efficiency and cost savings are high on the government’s agenda. This development is, however, a concerning one. The principle of open justice is essential in maintaining public trust and confidence and has a practical effect in holding the criminal justice system to account by exposing it to public oversight. A criminal conviction for any offence, however trivial, can destroy a career and the new procedure increases the risk of a person being convicted and punished without ever having known they were a defendant.
As justice is meted out behind closed doors, the question has to be whether this is any justice at all? As the Lord Chief Justice stated (in his annual press conference) “I hope I do not need to repeat this but I really passionately believe in open justice and justice that is not open is not good justice.”