"Rush to justice": justice system loses commitment to committal hearings

 
Committing a person to stand trial in the crown court - the first stage of the criminal justice process - dates back to the feudal era. 
 
For centuries, committal hearings have safeguarded defendants from the ordeal of a trial when there is insufficient evidence against them. 
 
Currently, approximately 60,000 committal hearings are held annually, where magistrates determine whether the defendant has a case to answer. 
 
In 2001, committal hearings were removed for 'indictable-only' offences, like murder and rape which, due to their seriousness, must be heard in the crown court. Now, they are under threat again, as plans are underway to make committal hearings for 'either-way' offences a thing of the past. This will affect certain burglaries, drugs and other offences, which can be dealt with by the magistrates' court or the crown court. 
 

Out with committal proceedings, in with the 'sending' procedure

As part of an efficiency drive, committal proceedings will be abolished - reducing the average case length by up to six weeks. They will be replaced by a 'sending' procedure at the defendant's first appearance, where magistrates decide which court will hear the matter in full without the need for a hearing. Criminal justice minister, Damian Green, says the new procedure will bring defendants to justice "within weeks, not months." 
 
According to John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, magistrates support the government's efficiency measures. They also believe they could handle more cases if their sentencing powers were increased from six months to one year.
 
Obvious critics of the reform include defence solicitors who worry that removing one layer of justice is potentially damaging to defendants, although it is rare for a case to be thrown out at the committal stage. One notable instance in which defence solicitors hoped this would happen (but did not) occurred in 1978, when the former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, stood accused of conspiring to murder his homosexual ex-lover.
 

More haste, less speed?

Other experts point to the reform not being as efficient as it might appear. Michael Jones, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, told The Times, "...the sending procedure for either-way offences may result in delays in the crown court while evidence is served and I would not like to see this becoming a case of 'more haste, less speed."
 
Despite 98% of cases being tried by magistrates and only a handful being committed to trial, the move will only ever be plausible if justice is not sacrificed for speed.
 
If you need legal advice on committal proceedings we can put you in touch with an expert solicitor. Call us now on 0800 1777 162.
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