The Criminal Justice Minister, Damian Green, has announced the plan and said it will be trialled outside of London including in Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham and it is hoped that the new system will enable conclusion of cases within weeks rather than months.
The plan is to abolish committal hearings. Around 60,000 committal hearings take place every year. There are short hearings at which the Magistrates decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to show that a Defendant has a case to answer. It is proposed that these be axed in 29 areas of England and Wales and the plan is that it should cut the length of any case going to the Crown Court by up to 6 weeks.
However, legal professionals are worried that removing this procedure could be damaging, as it is currently the first stage of a case, following charge that the Court has the opportunity to review the evidence and direct that the case should not proceed if there is insufficient evidence.
Mr Green says "abolishing committal hearings is another one of the steps we are taking to make justice swift and sure and to ensure our Courts run efficiently and effectively for victims, witnesses and the taxpayers who fund them".
He said "the justice system needs continued improvement, and this announcement is an important step forward".
Committal hearings are the procedure by which a case is officially transferred from the Magistrates' Courts to the Crown Court it deals with the more serious crimes.
Previously all offences which were to proceed to be dealt with at the Crown Court had to be committed. However in 2001 this procedure was abolished for the more serious cases which are classified as 'Indictable only' being offences such as murder and this class of offence are those cases that have to be heard at the Crown Court because of their seriousness. However, offences that are classified as 'either-way' which are cases where a Defendant has the choice as to whether or not his case is dealt with in the Crown Court or the Magistrates' Court, such as offences of burglary, theft, possession of drugs, until now have all still been dealt with by way of a committal hearing if they are to proceed to the Crown Court. It is now planned that the committal procedure for either-way offences will also be scrapped. It is intended that it be replaced by new 'sending' procedures where a Magistrate will decide the venue of a case without the need for a separate hearing.
There are however significant concerns that these changes could in fact slow up the Court procedure or in fact make no difference whatever, rather than speeding it up. Michael Jones, Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) in speaking to The Times said "I do have concerns that the sending procedure for either-way offences may result in delays in the Crown Court while evidence is served, and I would not like to see this becoming a case of 'more haste, less speed'". At present the 6 week period prior to committal is the period in which the Crown Prosecution Service assimilate their bundle of evidence before service upon the defence prior to the committal hearing. The concern is that in dispensing with the committal proceedings, it will only mean that the 6 week delay will be transferred to the Crown Court proceedings rather than the Magistrates' Court.
The Chairman of the Magistrates' Association stated "we believe that there is every opportunity for the evidence to be tested, both by Magistrates on paper and, of course, by Judges in the Crown Court when cases come before them for a Plea and Directions hearing. But we would also like to see more cases coming through the Magistrates' Courts and would like to see our sentencing powers increased to 12 month custody".
Other proposals which have been raised recently in an attempt to save on time and costs of proceedings have included extending the working hours of Magistrates' Court beyond the usual 10 until 4 working day and to include weekend and evening sessions, as well as utilising more video links between courts, prisons and police stations.
Certainly the proposals for some extra weekend sittings in the Mid Essex area have not proved to be fully utilised. The new proposals relating to committal hearings could potentially speed up the procedure if the Crown Prosecution Service are in a position to be able to serve their case papers a lot earlier in the proceedings. However, it seems unlikely that would be the case unless additional resources are provided to the CPS for this purpose.
The above is not legal advice, it is intended to provide information of general interest in current legal issues.