‘Secret’ train-fare evasion cases may be quashed

train ticket machines
train ticket machines

Tens of thousands of prosecutions of train passengers for alleged fare evasion in secret hearings may have been “unlawful”, a judge has said.

About 75,000 prosecutions brought by train companies under the controversial single justice procedure (SJP) could be quashed, the chief magistrate of England and Wales said.

Under the SJP, up to 40,000 court cases a month – ranging from non-payment of television licence fees to speeding, fare dodging and truancy – are decided in private, often by a single magistrate without the defendant appearing in court.

The Telegraph revealed earlier this year that nearly two thirds of all magistrates’ court cases, including those brought against alleged BBC TV licence fee evaders, are being heard in secret.

On Thursday, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard that train companies, including Northern Rail and Greater Anglia, criminalised alleged fare evaders by bringing private prosecutions under the SJP system.

Many cases against alleged fare dodgers were brought under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889.

Yet this is not allowed under rules controlling how the SJP operates, the Evening Standard has reported.

Six test cases

Train operating companies were given powers to prosecute alleged offenders under the SJP in 2016.

Paul Goldspring, chief magistrate, said in court on Wednesday that his initial view was that “all of the offences which were not covered by [the] 2016 order but prosecuted under SJP process are void”.

He added that there “isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution” for the tens of thousands of cases potentially involved.

The judge continued that “there’s no doubt that had the 2016 order allowed this process then the vast majority of these cases would properly have been convicted”.

The hearing involved six “test cases” of fare-evasion prosecutions, with the judge saying that up to 74,860 convictions may have been legally unsafe.

Mr Goldspring said a letter was sent to those involved in the test cases explaining that the process used to give them criminal convictions was “probably unlawful”.

The court knows about a “certain number of the cases but it’s quite a task”, Mr Goldspring added, explaining that the full figure is not yet known.

‘I’m a good person’

One of the six people whose cases are being re-investigated, Sarah Cook of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, said on Friday that she only learnt about her case being re-opened after receiving a letter the previous day – when the court hearing was due to take place.

Ms Cook from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, said she tried to appeal after being fined for not producing a ticket following her train journey from Wombwell to Barnsley on Nov 17 2022.

The 40-year-old said the ticket machine would not accept her card for the fare and as she had not been on a train in decades believed she could buy a ticket once on the train.

But when she got off one stop later and was asked to show a ticket, she said she was told she had to pay a fine.

“The whole thing has been a palaver,” she said.

“It was always in my mind that I’m a business owner, I’m a good person.

“For what the crime was, it seemed very blown out of proportion for a less than £4 train journey.

“It was an appointment to see my accountant. I did get the train that one time and probably never again as a result.”

‘Overhaul secretive SJP’

The Magistrates’ Association called in March for an overhaul of the “secretive” SJP, saying its 12,000 members felt “uncomfortable” with the fast-track legal procedure.

In the same month, Alex Chalk, Justice Secretary, told Parliament that although he believed the SJP “works well”, there were problems with transparency of the process which needed “recalibrating”.

A spokesman for DfT OLR Holdings Limited (DOHL), the government-controlled company that owns Northern Rail, said: “Our focus remains on ensuring that all our customers are treated fairly, which means ensuring all passengers who board our trains have a valid ticket.

“DOHL train operators stopped using the single justice procedure for offences under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 in January and are reviewing its previous use.”

A Greater Anglia spokesman said: “Greater Anglia stopped progressing fare-evasion cases under the Regulation of Railways Act via the single justice procedure in March 2024.

“We are currently reviewing previous cases, and any associated implications, taking into account any further official guidance on this issue.”