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Single Justice Procedure ‘needs reform’, magistrates say

The Single Justice Procedure (SJP) “needs reform” to be seen as more transparent and fair, the Magistrates’ Association (MA) has said.

SJP proceedings deal with TV licence fees, driving without insurance, and dodging train fares, and defendants do not have to attend court.

It was set up in 2015 to create “speedier justice” by allowing magistrates to focus on more serious offences, and currently handles 40,000 criminal cases a month, the MA said.

However, the MA said “there are concerns” that cases are being brought before magistrates without prosecutors, such as the DVLA or TV Licensing, reading mitigations.

Mitigations can provide explanations of the offence, such as the defendant being elderly or vulnerable.

It said: “Prosecuting authorities may sometimes pursue cases that are not in the public interest, particularly when the defendant is vulnerable.

“This could mean that the pursuit of legal action is disproportionate or unjust given the circumstances.”

It argued prosecutors should be required to read all evidence so that they can “withdraw the case if they believe it is no longer in the public interest to pursue it”.

An investigation by the Evening Standard last month found a pensioner with Alzheimer’s was prosecuted over £3.34 owed to the DVLA under the SJP.

TV Licence
A TV licence fee cases can be dealt with by the procedure (Steve Parsons/PA)

A domestic abuse victim was also found to have been fined under the SJP after her controlling ex-boyfriend did not insure the car, and an unwell pensioner was prosecuted for failing to pay a TV licence while caring for his ill wife.

Mark Beattie JP, national chairman of the MA, said: “We believe that the principle of the Single Justice Procedure is good.

“Every year it spares thousands of defendants the ordeal of having to attend court for minor offences, and it allows for more efficient use of court time, which means speedier justice and a focus on more serious offences.

“However, it is not a perfect system. While the vast majority of cases are handled effectively by the SJP, our members—magistrates who decide on SJP cases—have told us about flaws in the way it operates and the harm that this can have on some of society’s most vulnerable people.

“It is clear to us that reform, as well as additional investment in training and transparency, is needed to restore public confidence in the Single Justice Procedure.”

MA said many of its members “uncomfortable” with the current SJP system.

It reported a “significant proportion” of magistrates said they do not always have sufficient time to “properly consider each case”.

The body called for improved training which it said, at present, does not emphasise that “magistrates can exercise their discretion” in proceedings.

Research on how to improve the system for vulnerable people, including those with “learning difficulties” and “communication challenges”, should also be undertaken, it said.

It added accredited journalists should be able to observe SJP sittings.

SJPs handle 40,000 criminal cases a month and 3,102,392 criminal cases were received into Single Justice Service platform between April 1 2019 and September 30 2023.

A single magistrate, supported by a legal adviser, hears the cases and defendants can enter pleas online.

Magistrates can see other details online and outcomes are recorded digitally.