Top judge to look into flaws of controversial fast-track justice system

Lady Chief Justice, Dame Sue Carr, has promised to investigate the workings of the single justice procedure (PA Wire)
Lady Chief Justice, Dame Sue Carr, has promised to investigate the workings of the single justice procedure (PA Wire)

The top judge in England and Wales has promised to investigate the workings of a controversial fast-track court system after an Evening Standard investigation revealed how the elderly, vulnerable and mentally ill people are convicted in closed-door hearings.

The Lady Chief Justice, Lady Carr of Walton-on-the Hill, backed the single justice procedure when questioned on the fairness of the system, calling it “proportionate” for low-level crimes.

But she went on to pledge to look more closely at how magistrates work within the system, after being told that prosecutors do not read mitigation from defendants and people with mental health difficulties rarely receive legal advice before they are convicted.

“We are dealing with low-level, but nonetheless I recognise important, issues for everyday people,” said Lady Carr. “And this is a proportionate way of dealing with them.

“I think the safeguards are there, both in terms of open justice and protection for the individual involved.”

Lady Carr said she would look into how mentally ill defendants are supported in the procedure, and vowed to inspect how decisions are taken at private hearings. She even suggested she may sit in judgment on SJP cases.

Her intervention comes after MPs and a regional mayor wrote to Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk, calling for a review of the operation of SJP.

In December, the Standard revealed how prosecutors do not usually get to see mitigation entered by defendants, even if it contains crucial new information, explanations for missed payments, or alternative lines of contact that could avoid a criminal case.

The Ministry of Justice said Mr Chalk would respond “in due course”, but a letter sent in early January from Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and Conservative MP for Walsall North Eddie Hughes has not yet been publicly answered.

In a case which took place via SJP last week, a 34-year-old woman from Bristol said she was left feeling suicidal after being accused of not paying for a TV licence. In a mitigation letter, she revealed she has bipolar, suffers with ADHD, autism, anxiety and depression.

She pleaded guilty without legal representation, and papers submitted to the court do not mention any extra support because of her mental health.

Analysis of court data shows average fines given to people prosecuted for not paying the TV licence have almost halved since the Standard’s exposé.