British Prime Minister Tony Blair believes that the criminal courts are failing. The person who spits at the old lady is not prosecuted because it takes too many police hours, he says. If there is a trial, the outcome is a fine. The upshot? The police don’t bother.
Likewise, to prove that a person carrying £10,000 in cash at 2am in the middle of the city is a drug dealer is hard. “The months and years of a court process, with a jury utterly bemused and the legal aid bills rising . . . to prove serious financial fraud or conspiracy means they rarely happen, and if they do, often collapse.”
The radical solution outlined in his “respect action plan” is simple: remove a swath of lowerlevel cases from the courts. Prosecutors, not judges or magistrates, would hand out a penalty where offenders plead guilty to offences such as criminal damage, shoplifting or theft. The courts could then deal with serious crimes more swiftly and millions might be saved in legal aid.
The idea, to go this week to a committee of key criminal justice players chaired by the Lord Chancellor, seems novel. But it builds on powers that police and prosecutors already have. Police can impose fixed-penalty notices for disorderly behaviour, damage and retail theft. And since 1986 fixed-penalty notices have existed for many road-traffic offences. Meanwhile, a scheme is being tested in which prosecutors impose a conditional caution if an offender agrees to rehabilitation or some kind of reparation. In return, a prosecution is waived