'Soft justice' orders hit record high of 130,000 'slaps on the wrist'

Charles Hymas
·3-min read
Packet of drugs
Packet of drugs

A record 130,000 offences resulted in criminals avoiding prosecution through controversial community resolution orders, including more than 50,000 drug offenders who escaped with a “slap on the wrist,” official figures show.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data showed that the “soft justice” orders rose by 25 per cent compared with 2018, and were up 13 per cent year on year.

But the biggest increase was drug offences, with a doubling to 52,000 in the number handed community resolution orders, informal punishments where the offender avoids a criminal record and “resolves” the offence by apologising to the victim or paying them compensation.

The figures will raise fears that drug possession is being decriminalised by the backdoor, with increasing numbers of forces also introducing “diversion” schemes where offenders, including those with class A drugs, can avoid prosecution by agreeing to treatment.

Community resolutions were originally introduced for low level offences such as criminal damage, theft and minor assaults but the MoJ figures show a significant proportion are now being used for more serious offences, including sexual assault, violence, robbery and possession of weapons.

Of the 130,000 orders issued, a quarter, or some 31,000, were for offences of violence against the person. A further 449 were for sex offences, 176 for robbery, 1,404 for possession of weapons and 18,000 for theft.

Community resolutions now account for more than half of the offences in which the perpetrator avoids prosecution, while the proportion of crimes resulting in an offender being charged has fallen to a record low of just seven per cent.

Amanda Pinto QC, the Bar Council’s chair, said the figures were a cause for concern, as both prosecutions and convictions were down year-on-year while “out-of-court” punishments were up 13 per cent.

“We had warned against using out of court disposals for serious crimes months ago, to avoid sending a message of ‘soft justice’ to potential criminals. These methods must not be used as an alternative to bringing serious criminals to justice,” she said.

“Add to that the fact that the public’s safety is at risk because of the inordinate delay in bringing cases to trial.

“The Government must invest properly in the whole criminal justice system to enable cases to be heard in a reasonable time. 

“If this is not urgently brought in hand, through the provision of more court rooms and more staff to help run the courts, the public will lose all faith in this country’s ability to keep them safe.”

James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said community resolutions could avoid criminalising a generation of offenders, but their use for sex offenders needed to be scrutinised when a formal court prosecution might be more appropriate.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Community resolutions should only be used by police for low-level or first-time offending, and are made in agreement with victims. Today’s figures show that – despite the challenges of the pandemic – serious offenders continue to be pursued rigorously through the courts where they continue to get longer sentences. ”