Criminal case management: encouraging guilty pleas
The Government White Paper on reform of the criminal justice system, published in July 2012, refers to two judiciary driven initiatives designed to encourage more accused persons to plead guilty at an early stage.
The better established of these operates in the Magistrates’ Courts under the heading: Stop Delaying Justice. Since January 2012, magistrates have been encouraged to manage as many criminal cases as possible on the basis that there should be no more than two hearings and that the whole process should be over within 6 weeks.
The introduction of the initiative followed a speech delivered by the Lord Chief Justice in 2011 on the importance of ensuring the there are no unnecessary delays and wasted expenditure. It was developed by the magistrates themselves working with district judges and the Crown prosecution service.
The obvious risk is that, with pressure to plead guilty before the accused knows all the evidence against him/her, this may lead to incorrect decisions. A BBC Radio 5 Live documentary suggested that at least some cases might have resulted in unfair decisions being reached. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17690404
But the Magistrates’ Association and the CPS both defend the new scheme, in particular on the principle that justice delayed can be justice denied.
An equivalent scheme is also being tested in the Crown Court. During 2012-2013, Crown Courts in the London area will be developing Early Guilty Plea Protocols. These are also designed to ensure that those accused of offences are encouraged to plead guilty early. The first of these protocols, applying in Wood Green Crown Court was published in June 2012: see http://www.cps.gov.uk/london/early_guilty_plea_scheme/
The Government White paper on the reform of the Criminal Justice system states that the Government will support the roll-out of these schemes on a national basis over the coming months.
The importance of evaluating the effects of these initiatives seems to be very great, though the White Paper makes no mention of any such evaluation currently being undertaken.
For further information on the initiative, see http://www.crimeline.info/stop-delaying-justice/
For a very sceptical view by a serving magistrate see:http://thejusticeofthepeace.blog.co.uk/2011/11/10/stop-delaying-justice-12145157/