A number of newspapers have been reporting plans reportedly drawn up by the Crown Prosecution Service to the effect that for the duration of the Olympics, courts are going to be operating special extended opening times, from 8am to 7.30pm instead of the ususal 10am to 4.30pm, and there will be a special “fast-track” for offences committed in the vicinity of the Olympics.
The fact that prosecutors are talking like a British version of Judge Dredd does not, of course, mean that they have the resouces to deliver on the same threats. After all, just five weeks ago, the papers were reporting that there will be fewer courts open during the Olympics than there are normally; the Crown Courts will be operating at only 50% of capacity, “Thames and Stratford magistrates’ courts, both situated on the specific ‘games lane’, will operate one courtroom only (for overnight cases) and planned youth courts will not be held at Stratford. Highbury Corner will deal with priority custody trials and productions from Stratford and Thames, whilst gateway traffic cases will not be listed at Waltham Forest.” I.E. the Coalition’s cuts, which have hit the criminal justice system especially hard, will prevent fast-track justice from taking place in quite the way that the prosecutors are saying. (And the senior judiciary, whose summer holidays are precious, are not playing ball).
One part of the latest announcement though which I do find genuinely troubling, however, is the suggestion that Magistrates will be expected to carry out a larger number of hearings by “virtual court”, i.e. by video link from police stations. This is a problem. Where virtual courts have been tried in London before (as they were in 2010-2011), they have been a manifest failure. You have to set up a timetable for the hearings (which are booked in 15 minute slots each), there are often connection difficulties, and in practice the pace of the court hearings is considerably slower than the ordinary courts.
More worrying than the general inefficiency of the system is what it does to the meanigful content of justice. At a Magistrates’ Court hearing a person may plead guilty, and if they do the court is expected to proceed to sentencing. Fifteen minutes is usually far too short an amount of time to deal properly with sentencing decisions, and you can imagine what an inadequate sense the Magistrates get of the peronality of defendants – who they see as a smal blob at the other end of a TV screen – and who will often be a drug user, a recovering alcoholic, a young person who has been in trouble lots of times before for very minor offences, etc. Difficult decisions, such as whether to jail someone, or whether to refer them for treatment, end up being made on the hoof.
Bad decision are made which have a long-term impact on people’s lives. You could say something similar about the Olympics as a whole.
Details of the main July 28 protest can be found below: