Justice must be seen to be done, says ex-district judge

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A DROP in the number of cases seen by local magistrates has led to a lack of transparency in the justice process, a retired district judge has claimed.

According to the Government the number of people dealt with formally by the criminal justice system has been declining since 2007 and is now at its lowest level since 1970.

The reduction in workload, which has led to a number of magistrates’ courts in Yorkshire closing in recent years, is thought to be linked to falling crime rates and an increased use of out-ofcourt measures such as “community resolutions” instead of prosecution.

Although the number of cautions, or warnings, issued has also been dropping since 2007, some fear they are still being used inappropriately and earlier this year Justice Secretary Chris Grayling launched a review in a bid to ensure more cases came to court.

Paul Firth, a retired District Judge in Merseyside and Lancashire who served as a deputy district judge in Hull and Bradford, said the change in approach had some benefits. Police officers are being spared the need to spend hours with suspects at police stations preparing them for court, he said, while cash-strapped police forces are able to spend less money carrying out extra work.

But Mr Firth said some out-of-court disposals were being given for offences that should have been taken to court and that failure to prosecute was often storing up trouble for the future.

He said: “The problem with all out of court disposals is that we don’t know the first thing about an individual case. Justice is not being seen to be done and that is a major concern.

“Many courts are losing work and as a result courts are closing. As a result of that, those that have to go to court have to travel further to go their local magistrates’ court.

“These days you can walk into Rotherham magistrates’ court and you will only find four courts being used; that is a reasonably typical example of how few cases now go through the system.”

He added: “What I am concerned about as well is that some of the cautions are at best borderline justified and in some cases not at all. What troubles me also is whether we have gone too far with our cost-effectiveness exercise, have we put too much importance on saving money, doing it the quickest and cheapest way?”

The Ministry of Justice says that from 2002, the use of out-of-court disposals increased rapidly and peaked in 2007, before decreasing year on year to 2012.

A guide on its website said: “The increase coincided with the introduction in 2001 of a target to increase offences brought to justice, and the decrease coincided with the replacement in April 2008 of the target with one placing more emphasis on bringing serious crimes to justice. The latter target was removed in May 2010.”