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18 August 2023
Wider justice system

A response to the recent media coverage.

The text reads: media statement

The Single Justice Procedure (SJP)—and the role of magistrates in the process—has come under intense scrutiny recently. Responding to the recent media coverage, Tom Franklin, Chief Executive of the Magistrates’ Association said:

“We acknowledge how stressful and difficult it can be to find oneself caught up in the criminal justice system, both for the person charged with an offence and for their family, and especially when age or ill health is involved. Magistrates know that the people before them are not just court cases—this is about real people’s lives.

“While treating people compassionately, magistrates must apply the law as it has been set down by Parliament, fairly and equally to all. That is the oath that they took when they became magistrates.

“Some of the criticisms of the past few days have been incorrectly assigned to the SJP. For example:

  • Many lower-level offences—the type of offences that the SJP covers—are so-called ‘strict liability offences’ that would still exist even if the SJP did not. This means that a person will be guilty of the offence even if they did not intend or know about it.
  • Many defendants do not respond to court letters for lower-level offences and, by not doing so, they are effectively ‘tried in absence’ on the information that magistrates have before them. This will often mean that magistrates are unaware of any mitigating factors that they could consider when reaching a verdict and sentencing. Trials in absence have been part of our justice system for the past 300 years. If the SJP did not exist, this issue would remain. We would like to see a more concerted effort to publicise the importance of responding to official court letters.

“The SJP allows for more efficient use of court time, which means speedier justice and a focus on more serious offences. Crucially, any defendant can opt out of the SJP and ask for their case to be heard in open court.

“However, we believe it is important the SJP is at least as open and transparent as cases heard in court and we have called on the government to review the process to make sure this happens. We recognise that steps have been taken to improve transparency. For example, journalists are now able to review listings and outcomes in digital format, whereas in the past they would have had to attend every single court in person to receive the same information. Yet, we think the government should go further. For example, we have highlighted the importance of ‘open data’, and would like to see data on all SJP cases released for public scrutiny.”