Serious flaws in ‘conveyor belt’ court system used to prosecute Londoners exposed in Standard investigation

The single justice procedure was deployed in criminal cases against tens of thousands of people accused of breaking Covid lockdown rules  (ES Composite)
The single justice procedure was deployed in criminal cases against tens of thousands of people accused of breaking Covid lockdown rules (ES Composite)

A sick pensioner convicted behind closed doors of breaking the Covid lockdown with a visit to his allotment, parents unlawfully fined in dark corners of the justice system over truancy allegations, and women who attended the vigil for Sarah Everard prosecuted while oblivious to criminal cases against them.

These are just some of the scandals and injustices uncovered by the Evening Standard during a three-year investigation into a secretive justice system used to prosecute Londoners.

The single justice procedure was deployed in the pandemic for criminal cases against tens of thousands of people accused of breaking lockdown.

But a forensic inspection of this courts system — branded “conveyor belt” justice — reveals evidence of magistrates convicting and fining defendants in less than a minute, key evidence missing or overlooked, and thousands of prosecutions conducted entirely in secret. New questions are raised today after Covid fines of £15,000 handed to London businesses in unlawful prosecutions were cancelled thanks to a Standard investigation.

White goods shop London Domestic Appliances and Brick Lane restaurant Kyice’s Kitchen were taken to court by Tower Hamlets council over allegations they had broken the pandemic lockdown restrictions.

The council chose to prosecute them through the single justice procedure, which was introduced in 2015 to allow courts to sit in private and deal with cases based on paperwork alone. London Domestic Appliances received fines totalling £14,000 plus £3,000 in costs for a series of alleged incidents, while Kyice’s Kitchen was hit with a £1,000 fine.

The 2021 convictions have now been overturned and penalties cancelled after it was revealed the cases were dealt with at a time when the single justice system could not legally be used for corporate defendants. In recent weeks, the Standard has uncovered:

  • A 78-year-old pensioner with dementia fined for not having car insurance when she was in a care home.

  • A 33-year-old man handed a £781 legal bill after accidentally failing to pay £4 to the DVLA.

  • A woman, 32, who was ordered to pay £300 despite telling a single justice court she had paid her insurance in full.

Women who attended the vigil for Sarah Everard were prosecuted behind closed doors over claims of lockdown-breaking, with some only discovering they had been convicted when contacted by this newspaper. Those convictions were later quashed and the cases dropped.

The Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common (PA Archive)
The Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common (PA Archive)

Single justice courts have also been used to unlawfully prosecute parents for serious truancy offences.

Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the justice committee, is among those who have called for a review of the operation and transparency of the system, while MPs have questioned its use for often legally complex Covid offences.

Criminal Bar Association chairwoman Kirsty Brimelow KC has on Tuesday called for an investigation to “draw awareness to this large dark corner of criminal justice”.

She said: “Openness has been sacrificed at the altar of speed. The Government previously defended the process on the grounds that trials in absence have operated without complaint for centuries. It takes little analysis to note that there were many processes 300 years ago that we would not have wished to continue in a modern criminal justice system.”

At Thames magistrates’ court last month, the Covid conviction against Kyice’s Kitchen was overturned and the case was dropped by the council.

The convictions and fines against London Domestic Appliances were also overturned, but the shop owners may face a fresh prosecution — in open court — over the allegations which date to November 2020.

It is said a salesman was in the doorway of the shop and allegedly offered to take payment on the spot when lockdown rules only allowed for click and collect sales.

It was Suella Braverman who — as attorney general — agreed the single justice system could be used generally for Covid prosecutions, despite evidence of an “error rate” within criminal cases involving lockdown-breaking and a lack of legal scrutiny and transparency in the closed-door courts. Tens of thousands of prosecutions have been brought since Covid began, in a courts system not open to the public.

When first told it had blundered by prosecuting a company through the single justice procedure, Tower Hamlets claimed other councils had done the same. “There was scope to argue that the procedure could be used for corporate defendants and we understand that other authorities had similarly used it for corporate defendants”, a spokesman said. “Nevertheless, if there was an error it was merely procedural.”

HM Courts and Tribunals Service confirmed the prosecutions had been unlawful, blaming “human error” for the mistakes and insisted: “We acted as soon as this issue was identified.”

In the wake of this incident, the Standard has identified three further single justice prosecutions — involving driving offences — brought apparently unlawfully against London businesses in 2022.

The law was changed in January this year, allowing businesses to be prosecuted legally through the single justice procedure for the first time.

But serious concerns remain about the system. The Magistrates’ Association has called for greater transparency, while lawyers and campaigners say legal checks have been diminished — and mistakes and injustices are more likely.

The Ministry of Justice said magistrates are “supported by a trained legal adviser” and told MPs in January that the system is “quicker, more straightforward and more efficient, all while still being fair, transparent, and rigorous”.