Feature

David Beckham plea-by-post highlights concerns over open justice

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New procedure is labelled ‘justice-light’

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When David Beckham’s motoring case came up this week — he was caught driving his Bentley whilst on his mobile phone (the phone bit is the crime, not the Bentley) — the big news was not that Beckham was up for a motoring offence in the first place but that his case was not heard in a public court.

Under new money-saving rules, where a defendant pleads guilty to “non-imprisonable” crimes such as going through red lights and fare-dodging, the case can be heard by a single lay magistrate without an open court hearing and without the defendant attending.

Beckham was due to appear at Bromley Magistrates’ Court facing the prospect of six points on his licence and a £200 fine. Instead, he admitted to the offence by post.

Concerns have been raised about the new process, known as the single justice procedure. “A fundamental principle of our justice system is at stake here, justice needs to be seen to be done,” argues Jon Collins, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, “it should be open for public scrutiny.”

There is an additional problem too, says Collins, which is that if the whole process — from being charged with an offence to being found guilty of it — is done without a hearing, individuals do not fully appreciate its implications: “There is a risk that the system appears to be purely administrative rather than judicial. This is a serious process and you are pleading guilty to a criminal offence. Individuals may choose not to get legal advice, or may not explore possible defences they could use, and then end up with a criminal conviction.”

Penelope Gibbs, director at campaigning organisation, Transform Justice, labelled the procedure “justice-light” and told Legal Cheek that it had not been sufficiently scrutinised before being introduced:

“There is a real problem here that the whole process hinges on an individual receiving the correct paperwork in the post and clearly understanding what the process is. A significant percentage do not respond for a variety of reasons — if you do not respond to the notice in time, you are assumed to be guilty and convicted. Plus there is a real risk of a lack of understanding of what the implications are at the end of the process.”

One cautionary tale of individuals not appreciating the procedures and which hit the headlines a couple of years ago, concerns a businessman who had got on a London bus without paying for his ticket. He had forgotten his wallet and was let on as the bus driver agreed to let him pay another time (he frequently travelled on the route). A ticket inspector subsequently got on the bus and the individual was charged with fare evasion. When the notice came through, the busy businessman just agreed to pay the fine “to make it go away”. It was only when he was sent a penalty notice of almost £800 for not paying a £1.50 bus fare that he decided to appeal.

The single justice procedure is just one element of a £1 billion reform programme being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which also includes the introduction and roll-out of online courts. The House of Commons justice committee has launched an inquiry into concerns over access to justice as a result of the broader set of reforms.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has told the media that the single justice procedure provides what it calls “swift justice” that “reduces the burden on magistrates so they can focus on more serious cases.”

In an added twist to the Beckham case, Bromley Magistrates’ Court did confirm earlier this week that there would, after all, be an open court hearing (on 17 April) because, mysteriously, “further information” was required.

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23 Comments

The Court of Pie Powders

Some proper journalism highlighting an actual concern in the justice system so we can all think about it.

To be commended LC. More of this, less “law school blogger of the week” please.

(40)(0)

Anonymous

Still, ‘fair-dodging’. LC is beyond cringe sometimes.

(0)(5)

Anonymous

It’s been corrected. Will make mistakes – try not to be so spiteful.

(A lawyer, not one of the Legal Cheek team).

(4)(0)

Anonymous

A worthy piece of journalism. This “innovation” is plainly not working. Earlier this month I represented clients where the SJP had resulted in a case being listed for a 1 hour trial when four witnesses were being called, no pleas had been entered and no attempt made by the court to seek the views of both parties as to the likely length and complexity of the trial. The chair of the bench then threw a wobbly when the case inevitably had to be adjourned. Whoever dreamed up this “innovation” clearly lives in cloud cuckoo land.

(10)(1)

Anonymous

Wasn’t it Briggs JSC’s dream?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t see why minor issues like this require a panel of three magistrates and attendances from CPS and a Defence lawyer. Presumably, the same routes of appeal are open to a person who feels that they have been wronged by the magistrate in question.

I am not a criminal practitioner, if you are then please feel free to correct me, but I think that we need more initiatives like this. Now more than ever before is there a need for government departments and agencies to do more with less and keep up with modern society.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

This argument just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The nation has never been richer. The total tax take the government receives has never been greater. Yet somehow we can’t afford to provide services we provided 70 years ago when we were very poor.

I don’t think either political party is actually concerned by this, but where is all of the money going?

(9)(5)

Anonymous

As much as I don’t like it, the answer is pensions and the NHS.

When old age pensions were set up most people died before they got to draw it, or barely got to draw it – life expectancy in 1908 was 53/55 for M/F, pensionable age 70. Even by 1948 with universal pensions and a retirement age to 65/60, life expectancy was 66/70 (all for M/F) and so people drew a pension for less than a decade. Life expectancy now 79/83 so people are drawing significantly more.

Same applies to the NHS – its most expensive patients (60+) have expanded rapidly since the 1940s and even healthy pensioners will usually be on some form of medication or another. Its budget in 1948 was £15b. It is now approaching 9x larger than that. The economy is not 9x larger.

On the current funding model there will *never* be ‘enough’ money for either – it will always be a case of rationing their ever increasing demands for resources against competing needs like justice. Criminals are seen as less deserving than grannies and the chronically ill. Politically at least, we can’t afford a proper justice system. Disgraceful but true.

(19)(0)

Anonymous

Why oh why do politicians not see the light and take a whole load of minor offenses out of the criminal justice system and establish a non-criminal justice stream which issues low level fines and penalties?

(6)(0)

Anonymous

They have. The Fixed Penalty Notice (PND) was introduced by the CJA 2003. It covers all motoring offences and quite a lot of more serious offences such as theft, burglary and robbery. The single justice procedure only applies to non-imprisonable offences, but the ones that come before the single justice are the cases the police considered too serious for a PND. The problem with it isnt that its a single justice, it that the Magistrates is not sitting in open court when imposing sentences and the facts of offences are not read out in open court. It is secrect justice and that is worrying.

Phil

Why not just do away with the Magistrate?
Go on line, plead guilty, enter your income hey presto automatic fine is generated.
Closed and secret justice is not justice

(1)(0)

Anonymous

This type of thing should be a civil or administrative matter (criminal standard of proof though). Decided on paper and settled via fine. No criminal record involved.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

As stated above, nice to see a proper article.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Poor little David ate three crayons before scrawling down his plea.

(3)(1)

Sally from Accounts

Bend it like Beckham

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Golden balls

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Beckham received a Single Justice Procedure Notice and pleaded guilty by post. I similarly advise my clients to Send it like Beckham.

The Single Justice Procedure has been around since 2015, so it’s hardly new.

Further, Beckham actually faces a £1000 fine and 6 points or a disqualification from driving. A fixed penalty is £200 but this is not a fixed penalty case.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

“Send it like Beckenham!” Now that was bloody funny…Lol!

(1)(1)

Anonymous

I meant “Beckham” bloody auto text!

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Whatever, liar. Learn to read and write.

(0)(12)

Anonymous

Surely finding someone guilty of a criminal offence because they don’t respond to a letter isn’t Article 6 compliant?

(0)(0)

Dave

What do you propose instead? Arrest everybody who doesn’t respond to proceedings for low end motoring offences?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

No, I propose that not answering a letter shouldn’t equate to being found guilty of a crime. I don’t think its Article 6 compliant.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

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