Where’s the justice? Heart-rending letters from vulnerable are ignored under 'broken' court system

Written appeals from the vulnerable and elderly who are charged with minor crimes are not routinely looked at by prosecutors in a “broken” secret justice system, an Evening Standard investigation has found.

Hundreds of thousands of cases a year are dealt with behind closed doors in the single justice procedure (SJP), a fast-track courts system used for controversial TV licence prosecutions as well as low-level offences like not paying road tax.

Defendants can write to the court after being charged, with some explaining how they fell foul of the law when their lives were in turmoil, they were ill, struggling with their mental health, or impoverished. But due to the design of the courts system, prosecuting bodies do not routinely read those letters to decide whether a case is in the public interest.

The Standard’s investigation uncovered a catalogue of defendants — some in their eighties and nineties — who were convicted despite having strong reasons for not paying their bills. They include:

A cancer-stricken pensioner with memory problems who was prosecuted after forgetting to pay his TV licence.

A woman with dementia taken to court by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for not paying £1.67 at a time when she suffered strokes.

A 65-year-old woman from Ilford fined for not paying for a TV licence when she was in hospital looking after her brain-damaged son following an accident. The TV Licensing prosecutor is understood to have not seen a mitigation letter and the case ended with an £80 fine, £120 in costs and a £32 surcharge.

One of the appeal letters
One of the appeal letters

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has called TV licence prosecutions “morally indefensible” and said that they were under review. Today’s revelation puts pressure on the Government to widen that review to the whole courts system.

Another appeal letter
Another appeal letter

The single justice procedure has been cloaked in secrecy since its introduction in 2015, with magistrates convicting defendants and deciding on punishments in private rather than in open court. Defendants are given the chance to plead guilty in writing and offer mitigation, which can reveal their difficulties and illnesses for the first time.

But the DVLA and TV Licensing authority — both prolific users of SJP — have admitted that they do not routinely look at those letters when a defendant has pleaded guilty.

“I am shocked that prosecutors are not looking at mitigation put forward by defendants,” said Penelope Gibbs, a

former magistrate and the director of charity Transform Justice.

“The process is broken even before the prosecution is rubber-stamped. Every suspect should have an opportunity to say whether they have a disability and the prosecutor should then decide whether every case is in the public interest. SJP prosecutors act as if they are computers.”

 (Evening Standard / Christian Adams)
(Evening Standard / Christian Adams)

The Standard’s investigation uncovered a 64-year-old woman with dementia taken to court when the licence for her Kia expired when it was parked outside her home. DVLA letters went unanswered, but when the case reached court her son wrote to apologise and plead guilty on his mother’s behalf for the £1.67 she owed. “She is so sorry about this,” he wrote. “At the time the vehicle was left in her street, she had suffered several mini strokes and suffers from dementia, so was not using the vehicle.”

The woman was convicted and fined £40, plus £85 costs, and when questioned about the public interest in this case the DVLA said it was now pushing for change in the SJP system. “When a guilty plea with mitigation is made it can be referred back to DVLA. Whether or not to do so is a decision taken by the magistrate and we are working with the courts service to make sure this happens,” said a spokesman.

The Standard also discovered the prosecution of a 62-year-old with mental health difficulties who pleaded guilty to not paying for a TV licence. “I have been by my daughter’s bedside as she had liver failure, so I haven’t been able to pay any of my bills,” she wrote. She was ordered to pay £116.

TV Licensing said prosecution was used as a “last resort” and that it had a dedicated team which can stop a court case if there is evidence that it is not in the public interest.

HM Courts and Tribunal Service defended SJP as an efficient process where magistrates were helped by a legal adviser to make fair decisions. It also said the decision to use SJP always lies with the prosecutor. It said magistrates can refer any case to an open court hearing when a prosecuting lawyer will be present and the decision lies with the magistrate rather than the court.

Commentary: fast verdicts are recipe for disaster

Upsetting stories of cancer patients and care home residents being convicted in a closed-door justice system should set alarms bells ringing for those in power.

Not isolated incidents, but signs that the single justice procedure is routinely delivering injustice. Many of the prosecutions should have been dropped as soon as it was clear that they were not in the public interest. But in a court system designed primarily for speed, prosecutors do not even see the letters revealing the truth. The offences involved are minor but the impact can be enormous, especially for those too old to cope alone. MPs created the system eight years ago, then failed to monitor whether it worked. Prosecuting bodies — police forces, Transport for London, councils, the DVLA and TV Licensing — know it is delivering injustices. And the Ministry of Justice appears to have little appetite for solving the problems.

The latest idea is for three magistrates to each deal with their own stack of prosecutions while sharing a single, legally-qualified adviser. The adviser will be in another room, busy with other work, to be called upon if the magistrate thinks they need help.

In a court system already operating behind closed doors, where most defendants play no active part, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The MoJ’s own pilot of the new system revealed magistrates were aiming to convict and sentence defendants in just 90 seconds, while legal checks were conducted on just 28 per cent of cases.

The single justice procedure must now be fully investigated to determine if it too has gone badly wrong.