Magistrate courts are the first place for recompense when dealing with crime. Virtually all criminal cases start in the Magistrates’ courts. The less serious offences are handled entirely in the magistrates court. Over 95% of all cases are dealt with in this way. The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, to be dealt with by a judge and jury.
When I spent the afternoon looking at how Lancaster magistrates court operate, it raised some questions about funding and the amount of time it took to achieve simple resolutions in straight forward cases.
Cases are heard either by three lay magistrates or one District Judge. The lay magistrates, or ‘Justices of the Peace’, are local people who volunteer their services. They don’t have formal legal qualifications, but are given legal and procedural advice by qualified clerks. District Judges are legally qualified, paid, full-time professionals and are usually based in the larger cities.
The two cases that were presented to the court when I was there were to do with television licence and confiscated funds. In the first case of the television licences the prosecuting solicitor had 40 cases to present to the judges. Most of the cases were uncontested. In all the cases we saw the defendants admitted the crime of not having a television licence. Under the Wireless Telegraph Act 1967 it is an offence to watch TV without the proper licence. Of the respondents that were contesting the prosecution who had appeared, they were on social benefits. There defence was not so much contesting the crime as offering up excuses for it. In one case a woman cited that her mother and her brother had died and that she suffered from depression. It was a second time she had not paid her licence. The judges consulted with one another and under the communication acts 2000. The court ordered that she pay the licence and was fined £60 and ordered to pay £45 costs. This procedure was followed for all the contested cases. In the uncontested cases it was much more straight forward. The Clerk would read out the charge. The prosecuting solicitor would than add any relevant information. For example that this is their second time that they have not paid. The Judges would than consult each other and a standard court order and would be given.
The Judges in these cases seemed to be totally unmoved by the arguments of these people living on income benefit that they could not meet their payments. They had been set a number of guide lines for sentencing. If the case had been proved or admitted as was the fact in the cases we saw, they applied these guidelines rigorously.
It was interesting to note in this case. There was one legal clerk, a prosecuting solicitor and three judges. That afternoon was going to be made up largely of dealing with these 40 cases. If we estimate the cost of that afternoon conservatively in relation to the result. The legal clerk and solicitor will charge two hundred pounds each per an hour. The cost of running the courts including all the administration duties will be much higher. As cited in the Criminal courts review “Local authorities found themselves making up increasing deficits in the cost of running their local courts. let’s say that the total cost is £900 pounds. Before you have got a result, there is already a considerable cost. As with most of these case I doubt that they will be paid on time as the defendants quite clearly have financial problems. More than likely a large percentage of them will be brought to the court on further charges, costing time and further expenses. Of course if all the defendants were to pay first time based upon the case above it would generate a net amount of £1800, making it an attractive proposition. I guess if the prosecutor feels it isn’t worth the time and expense than he will not pursue it. As is apparent from the criminal courts review, this is not a successful monetary improvement exercise.
Some other questions one may ask: Is Justice being served? Under the Electronic Communications Act 2000 every person must pay the television licence if they make use of broadcasted programs. Now the courts simply could not have chosen that they would have their TV removed until they had paid the fine. That would be against the law. Some doubts must be raised as the effectiveness of the legislation, if the object of the TV licence enforcer is to insure that all people pay their licence. Do they achieve this? Are there means reasonable? Is it cost effective? I would think that in cases relating to this matter that they could be easily resolved by the implementation of a decoder as used by suppliers of cable and satellite TV. Without the decoder you cannot watch TV, thus ensuring that only up to date subscriptions have access to the service. If they don’t pay they don’t watch TV programs and court time will no longer be used on reclaiming money from people who find it hard to pay for the service.
I think the BBC provides one of the best broadcasting services in the world. It is necessary to place monetary value on these services so to insure that they are not taken for granted. I do think it is one of the distinguishing factors between us and the Americans. Of course social media could be filling that gap too.