Police Minister Nick Herbert announces criminal justice plans
Criminals could be dealt with in days or hours under plans to introduce "swift and sure justice" and flexible court hours, ministers have revealed.
Police Minister Nick Herbert has published a White Paper proposing more court video links and tougher community sentences in England and Wales.
Neighbourhood justice panels will see local people decide how offenders should make amends for low level crime.
But solicitor Greg Foxsmith said: "Justice rushed is justice denied."'No need for delay'
Mr Herbert denied it was "gesture politics" and told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The whole point of these reforms to ensure swift and sure justice is about putting the victims first. There is no need for unnecessary delay in our criminal justice system.
"It is in the interest of justice that people are dealt with appropriately and, where they are going to court, that they are brought to court as soon as possible and that is not happening at the moment."
In the aftermath of last year's riots, courts across England opened for longer and on weekends to deal with the large volume of people going through the criminal justice system.
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: "The public, victims, even defendants themselves are right to expect that those accused of crimes are dealt with quickly and efficiently. But while more evening and weekend sittings, and more justice handed down at the community level, sounds practical, it won't come cheaply. I hope the government are going to explain exactly how this is going to be funded."
In October, Prime Minister David Cameron said the public wanted to see speedy justice, and that if it was possible in the wake of the riots then "let's make sure we do it all the time".
Typically, nearly five months pass between an offence taking place and a sentence being handed down, despite the fact that most cases do not have to go to trial or are uncontested.
The neighbourhood justice panels, aimed at helping people deal with anti-social behaviour and low-level offending in their community, have already been trialled in three areas - Sheffield, Norfolk and Somerset - and will be tested in a further 15.
The Ministry of Justice says the panels will directly involve the victim and community in deciding action on the part of the perpetrator that is meaningful, visible and based in the community itself.
Magistrates will be given a stronger role in community justice, with single magistrates sitting outside of courts, such as in community centres, in order to "dispense rapid and effective justice in low-level, uncontested cases".
Police will be given simpler guidance on how to deal with offenders, under the plans.
Under the proposals:
- Shoplifting cases currently taking five weeks could be dealt with in 13 days or fewer, or even hours where the offender pleads guilty in a virtual court
- A pilot scheme will be rolled out so courts can sit when needed, with some 100 magistrates' courts already sitting on Saturdays and bank holidays
- Magistrates will be able to scrutinise the use of cautions and penalty notices by the police following concerns that serious and persistent offenders were escaping justice.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said greater efficiency "has to be in the best interests of victims, prosecution and defence witnesses and all parties within the wider criminal justice system".
Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, welcomed the White Paper and said: "The justice system can be painfully slow. Many victims and witnesses tell us that waiting for a trial - or even just information about a case - is particularly stressful."
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "While most of our members will be pleased to see a role for single justices to deal with low-level uncontested cases, we are concerned about the venue to safeguard judicial independence and that such powers for this role should be for the judiciary only and not delegated to justices' clerks."
Mr Foxsmith, a solicitor and legal commentator, told Today: "I am worried that some of these proposals are going to mean that with the push towards speedier and swifter justice we are going to lose something along the way, and that is the justice element."
Mr Foxsmith, who is also a Liberal Democrat councillor in Islington, north London, said: "Justice rushed is justice denied. We pride ourselves in this country on a fair system of law and that means evaluating the case, investigating it properly and in fairness to both sides making sure the evidence is properly examined."