If you have a story call our newsdesk on 01722 426511 or email us. To advertise call 01722 426500.
Calls for 'on-the-spot justice'
Magistrates should dispense on-the-spot justice inside police stations at peak times, a centre-right think-tank has proposed.
As part of a radical set of recommendations to speed up the criminal justice system and help deliver planned budget cuts of nearly 40%, the Policy Exchange has argued in favour of recruiting 10,000 new magistrates, boosting overall numbers to 33,000.
Further court closures are also advocated in the think-tank's report, titled Future Courts, which highlights the difference in the number of magistrates' courts in England and Wales to NHS Accident and Emergency departments - 230 and 180 respectively.
New magistrates could sit in police stations - including during evenings and weekends - and other community buildings and would oversee out-of-court disposals, which Policy Exchange says accounts for 20% of all criminal cases.
There is currently a two-month delay from the time an offender is charged by the police to the sentence being handed down in a magistrates' court., the think-tank said.
Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange, and author of the report, said: " There is no good reason for our criminal justice system to operate in such a leisurely fashion.
"Police Courts would mean much swifter justice for low-level crime, reflecting the fact that if a punishment is to be meaningful and actually change behaviour, it has to be delivered very quickly.
"Putting magistrates in police stations will also bring much greater oversight to the use of cautions, about which there has been legitimate public concern.
"As budgets are reduced dramatically, the courts system will inevitably have to change.
"Fewer buildings will be part of the solution, but government must take care to protect the local justice landscape, underpinned by volunteer magistrates, that has served us so well for hundreds of years."
Over 90% of all criminal cases in England and Wales are dealt with by magistrates, the think-tank said, although applications to join the magistracy have dramatically decreased in recent years.
Her Majesty's Court and Tribunals Service must cut its budget by 37.8% between 2012 and 2016.
The report recommends measures to encourage younger, professional people to apply to be magistrates and i nstead of automatic retirement at 70, a new 'tenure period' for magistrates of 10 years should be implemented, creating greater turnover.
New "justice hubs", larger courthouses with up to 50 rooms, should be built to serve major population areas.
Justice Minister Damian Green said: " Magistrates are the cornerstone of our justice system. Their local knowledge and unique skills make them an extremely valuable part of our judicial process.
"We are already looking at the role of magistrates and starting to explore ways to maximise their role within the criminal justice system, there are a number of interesting ideas in this report that we will consider as part of our ongoing work."
Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: " Three years ago the Magistrates' Association celebrated 650 years of the magistracy and looked into the future.
"We proposed some positive suggestions about how magistrates could become more active, accessible and engaged.
"This report from Policy Exchange mirrors many of our suggestions and we are pleased to see that there is a wider view that much greater use can and should be made of magistrates.
"However, we firmly believe that the public should be able to see justice in action and having successfully campaigned for out of court disposals to be more open and transparent, it would seem a backward and totally inappropriate step for magistrates to deliver justice in police stations.
"Whether these proposals are allowed to be implemented is another matter, but we will work for our members to ensure that magistrates are valued and trusted to develop our role within the criminal justice system."