Magistrates have accused police of undermining justice by dealing with violent offenders behind closed doors.
In a new report, the Magistrates’ Association said increasing numbers of more serious crimes, including repeat knife offenders, assaults on emergency staff, domestic abuse and even sex offences were being dealt with out of court by police officers without public scrutiny.
It warned the “inconsistent” use of out-of-court punishments risked undermining open justice as it included penalties such as fines and electronic tagging that were, in some cases, tougher than those allowed to magistrates.
Ministry of Justice figures show police handed out punishments without any recourse to the courts for more than 200,000 offences in the year to June 2022.
Even though they are designed for “lower level” crimes and often for first-time offenders, the Association said it was alarmed to discover they were also being used for more serious offences such as assaults, domestic abuse, hate crime and repeat knife offenders who by law should face jail.
It said this increase in the use of out-of-court disposals had happened “haphazardly, without appropriate oversight and scrutiny” and represented a “troubling and largely unchecked transfer of power from the courts to the police”.
Offenders avoid criminal record
Out-of-court disposals range from community resolutions to fixed penalty fines, while cautions can be handed out by police officers if the offenders admit their guilt. Community resolutions are the most widely used, accounting for nearly 139,000 of the punishments, a near 40 per cent increase from 102,000 four years ago.
They require the offender to say sorry to those they have wronged and potentially pay compensation or carry out a reparation. However, they avoid a criminal record, are not taken to court and do not receive a police caution.
To ensure officers are held to account for how they apply justice out of court, police forces are supposed to set up scrutiny panels but four of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales have not, according to the Magistrates’ Association.
It said most of the panels also failed to publish their findings so they could be held publicly accountable. Just nine forces’ panels regularly published their minutes, while 10 said they produced an annual report. Only two panels – West Midlands and Surrey – confirmed they were attended by members of the public.
The Magistrates Association said justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done to ensure that the public has trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.
“Courts achieve this by hearing cases in public, with anyone able to observe and report on proceedings. Unlike criminal hearings in magistrates’ courts, out of court disposals (OOCDs) are not administered in the open,” it said.
‘Disturbing lack of consistency’
Mark Beattie, Association chairman, said: “These results demonstrate a disturbing lack of national consistency of scrutiny by police and crime commissioners nationally for a substantial level of criminal justice administration. The increasing number of serious offences dealt with by OOCDs seems to be developing unchecked.
“There needs to be a national review by the Government and the senior judiciary to ensure the OOCD system operates in the interests of justice with proper transparency and accountability, and that it does not fly under the radar of good quality justice.”
MoJ data showed the number of offences of violence against the person punished through community resolutions rose from 36,366 to 41,301 in the year to June, sex offences were up from 431 to 644, robbery up from 186 to 385, possession of weapons up from 1,501 to 1,985 and public order up from 11,291 to 12,662.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said OOCDs were used in close consultation with victims where they wanted a “timely” decision and had been shown to have “better outcomes” in reducing reoffending by addressing the “root causes” of crime.
Guidance made it clear they were not suitable for serious sexual assaults, most domestic cases or hate crime offences, which should be dealt with in the courts.
“The ability [for officers] to use their discretion and make quick and effective decisions using the knowledge they have of the victim, offender and community is important,” said the NPCC.