Tory politicians call for review of fast-track justice system 'against British values' after pensioner convicted over bill

Tory politicians have written to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (PA Wire)
Tory politicians have written to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (PA Wire)

Conservative politicians have dubbed a controversial fast-track justice system as "against British values" and called on Justice Secretary Alex Chalk to act in the wake of a "heartless" conviction of a 90-year-old for not paying a bill.

The housebound pensioner was prosecuted in the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) after he had stopped driving amid ailing health and did not insure his car.

When taken to court over the unpaid bill, he apologised for the insurance being "innocently overlooked", and explained how letters from the DVLA had not been seen as he cared for his dementia-suffering 88-year-old wife.

An Evening Standard investigation exposed last month how prosecutors are effectively excluded from the final stage of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) when defendants are sentenced behind-closed-doors.

As a result, they routinely do not see letters like the one sent in by the pensioner, even if it may cast doubt on the public interest of pursuing a criminal case.

Mr Chalk is now under mounting pressure to intervene after his Conservative colleagues Andy Street, the Mayor of West Midlands, and Walsall North MP Eddie Hughes called for an SJP review in the wake of the pensioner’s case, and branded harsh outcomes from the court process as "against British values".

"We are not questioning the need of a system like the SJP to deal with more minor cases quickly and effectively, but there must be a way for more care and attention to be given to avoid such heartless prosecutions," they wrote in a joint letter to the Justice Secretary.

The pensioner, from Walsall, was charged by the DVLA with keeping a vehicle which does not meet insurance requirements, and explained in his letter to the court that he is "90 years of age" and "housebound as I struggle to walk".

"Despite struggling to walk without a frame, I still look after my 88-year-old wife who has advanced dementia with assistance from a carer who puts her to bed and gets her up each day," he wrote.

"I have driven without any convictions for well over 60 years but have not driven for the last 12 months as my ability to walk has deteriorated very quickly – my car has been parked in the garage at my home all that time – if anyone would like to visit they will see it is completely blocked in."

Explaining missed letters about the insurance, he said his wife often "collects everything up including bits of chewed food, clothing, toilet rolls, and any papers – she gathers that all into bags ready to 'go home' when 'her dad comes to collect her'.

"It is extremely difficult but I do my best.

"As such I have not seen any sort of reminder letters about SORN or fines – I do not doubt you will have sent some but I have not seen them to read or to give to my son to help me."

The magistrate sentencing the pensioner's case handed him a three-month conditional discharge instead of a fine – apparently reflecting his strong personal mitigation – and ordered him to pay £50 in costs.

But Mr Street and Mr Hughes, in their letter to the Justice Secretary, insisted the system should allow for defendants like him to avoid criminal prosecution altogether.

"It seems likely (due to the attempted efficiency of the SJP process) that the prosecutor in the case didn’t read or see the letter," they set out.

"The fact that the SJP process didn’t (or couldn’t) take circumstances into account and avoid criminal proceedings – eg the out-of-court fixed penalty being re-offered – shows something is seriously wrong.

"Neither of us underestimate the need for the justice system to act swiftly, but to do so in the face of fairness and humanity goes against British values."

The call for a review comes after a series of revelations about sick, elderly and vulnerable people facing harsh treatment within the SJP system, where the vast majority of defendants do not have legal representation.

In December last year, a woman from Charlton with Down’s Syndrome and learning difficulties was convicted for not paying for a TV licence, even though she has not control over her own finances.

Greenwich Council sent a letter to the court setting out how its officials legally control the woman’s money due to her health difficulties, and the licence fee had accidentally not been paid.

Due to the design of SJP, TV Licensing did not see that letter of explanation and were not called on to make a decision whether to withdraw the criminal prosecution.

HM Courts and Tribunal Service has consistently defended SJP as an efficient court process where magistrates have the assistance of a legal adviser to make fair decisions.

It says the decision to use SJP always lies with the prosecutor, while magistrates can choose to refer any case to a full open court hearing for further information to be gathered.