Here's a glimpse of what things are like in court nowadays, basically unsatisfactory for everyone involved. This from the Guardian:-
'The system works on goodwill': how cuts are affecting magistrates
Business gets off to a brisk start as the three magistrates take their seats on the bench in court three of Luton magistrates court.
Within an hour a 50-year-old local businessman, found slumped at the wheel of his stationary company vehicle in a layby, has been dispatched with £1,036 to pay in fine and costs and a six-month driving ban. An out-of-work drink-driver, arrested at 2am for driving with no lights, leaves with £235 to pay in fine and costs, and a 12-month disqualification. He can cut that to nine months by paying to attend a drink-drive referral scheme, at a cost of up to £250.
This is typical fare for the 17,000 justices of the peace in England and Wales, and both cases are dealt with swiftly by the bench, equipped with iPads and sentencing guidelines and aided by a qualified legal clerk, or legal adviser.
To the casual observer, there is no outward sign of an overburdened, creaking system, ground down by budget cuts and court closures, which, according to the Magistrates Association, is leading to disaffected magistrates resigning in “considerable’’ numbers.
During a day spent at Luton, however, the frustrations of court users emerge. For a start, this magistrates court now covers the whole of Bedfordshire, the old Bedford magistrates court having been mothballed. “Any defendant from Bedford or surrounding villages now needs to travel to Luton, which is a 20-mile journey, and relatively difficult to manage, especially if you are on benefits,” says Stephen Halloran, director at the law firm Lawtons.
Vinod Jumnoodoo, director at another local firm, JSP Law Ltd, suspects this has contributed to a rising number of “no-shows” – of which there were four in court three when the Guardian visited on Thursday. “A train leaving Bedford at 9.05am will get to Luton at 9.19am. That train ticket will cost £15.70. Imagine stumping up for that if you’re on benefits?” says Jumnoodoo. Add to that the costs in court time of arresting and processing the absconder.
It is not a local problem. Forty-seven magistrates courts closed their doors between March and September under government proposals to reduce the £500m annual cost of the courts estate, and a further 45 are due to shut by September 2017, meaning one-fifth of all courts in England and Wales will have disappeared in 19 months.
Whether high travel costs are a factor or not, there is a brief lull for the magistrates in court three one hour into their day. The usher is juggling her list to funnel through those pleading guilty in timely fashion, but someone is late, and others are waiting to see a duty solicitor.
Jo Cestaro and Dawn McKnight, from Lawton, are on the duty solicitors’ rota this day, as is James Bailey-Woodward from JSP Law. Legal aid cuts have meant more unrepresented defendants, which has meant more people seeing duty solicitors at the court on their first appearances.
Cestaro finds herself defending a 23-year-old man, who has pleaded guilty to driving while disqualified and without insurance. It is not his first such offence and he has racked up £5,000 in outstanding fines. He is unemployed, and it is a huge burden.
One sitting magistrate, unconnected to Luton, has told the Guardian how demoralising it is to see defendants accruing fine on top of fine, with no hope of paying. More should be done, he believes, to encourage people facing driving offences to deal with it out of court. “In court fines are larger than if a person just filled in the paperwork. It is usually the poor who don’t have insurance, and the less well educated who don’t understand how to fill in the forms.”
Cestaro’s disqualified driver seems a case in point. He has diagnosed depression, a terminally ill sister, family problems, a mountain of debt and no job. The magistrates call for a pre-sentencing probation report. “Do be frank and candid; it can only help you,” the chairman of the bench says as the defendant departs with a probation services officer for interview.
Thirty minutes later, the probation report is read aloud. Magistrates decide on an eight-week prison sentence, suspended for 12 months, and 15 “RAR” – rehabilitation activity requirement – days. He is banned from driving for 25 months, and while there is no additional fine, he still must pay £200 – £85 prosecution costs and £115 victim surcharge, which can only be consolidated with his current fines.
Once cases could be adjourned for three weeks for a pre-sentencing written probation report. Today, they can be completed almost instantly. It appears highly efficient. But there are fears that quality may suffer. “It is a very, very brief interview. The reports are becoming a tick-box pro forma, and are more scant than they used to be without a shadow of doubt,” says Jumnoodoo. Crown court cases take precedence, and magistrates quite often find probation reports not being prepared on time, says one JP, who does not sit at Luton.
Cuts mean the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is also stretched, say lawyers, leading to papers not being available either to defence solicitors or magistrates on time. Often there is only a case summary, drawn up by police, which when actual statements arrive, after delay, “bears no resemblance to reality”, says Jumnoodoo.
Prosecutors are travelling further and being parachuted into courts they weren’t expecting to deal with, he adds: “Downtrodden prosecutors now are not too shy to simply state to the court: ‘I can’t deal with that file, I haven’t read it.’”
There is a sense that continuing cuts can lead to a dislocation nationwide between such courts and the communities they serve, with defendants, prosecutors and magistrates all travelling further, to courts rarely covered by their local newspapers.
Back in court three, business goes on without too many apparent problems. Warrants for the arrests for the “no-shows” are issued. A 29-year-old unemployed man, accused of biting a police officer in the thigh while under arrest for brandishing his belt as a weapon outside McDonald’s and refusing a blood specimen test, receives an 18-week sentence suspended for 12 months, a driving ban and fines and compensation totalling £570. The 18-year-old he got into an altercation with, and who also brandished his belt, receives a 12-month community order, 150 hours’ community service, and £170 in costs. Both get a 7pm-7am curfew.
But Bailey-Woodward from JSP Law, who is representing a woman accused of shoplifting, is forced to wait several hours for her papers to arrive, only to discover she is not, as assumed, pleading guilty, but entering a not guilty plea. A trial date is set for February.
The aim, drummed into magistrates during their training, is not to clog the system. They are trained to adjourn only “in extraordinary circumstances”, says one Luton magistrate who has spent 26 years on the bench, and who does not wish to be named. “Some days you work solidly. Others, you wonder why you bothered to come. The number of times something or someone is missing, or people have sent the papers over too late, or not at all.” But he has great sympathy with the CPS staff, “who are under a lot of pressure”.
One way courts can relieve that pressure is by “undercharging”, it is claimed. “Instead of GBH, you will get charged with an ABH. Instead of ABH you will get charged with an assault. Just to encourage people to plead to a lesser offence,” says Halloran.
Overall, the number of people being processed and charged has “drastically dropped”, and volumes are down significantly, he adds, “and it cannot all be down to the work of the youth offending team. The reality is that the police/CPS, unless they have overwhelming evidence, won’t charge an offence or they will try to divert it, just to save money.”
The system is “creaking” he says, and relies on the goodwill of those involved to keep the show on the road.
Goodwill is there. It’s there in the form of the 33-year-old mother of two young children, now in her last days of training to become a magistrate at Luton. Juggling being a magistrate with her job and motherhood is not going to be easy. “The system is not set up for people who are younger and have these other commitments,” she says. However, she is determined.
And despite his 26 years on the bench, the longstanding Luton JP remains committed. As an ex-headmaster, he laments the reduction in the number of youth courts at Luton, from two a week to just half a day a week. Here he felt he could make a real difference. Now the less serious youth offences never reach court, and the really serious cases are sent up to crown courts, which have greater sentencing powers, he says.
But, he adds: “I’m still doing it. It is still worth doing. It is still working, but it is creaking”.