We have joined charity and law practice APPEAL and other organisations in endorsing a new briefing highlighting the serious problems with the Single Justice Procedure, a recent move by the government to deal with minor offences using written notices instead of going to court.
In the UK, the vast majority of criminal convictions are for low-level offences. In an effort to streamline procedures, in 2015 the government first introduced the Single Justice Procedure through the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. The idea is to deal with minor, non-imprisonable offences without going to court by delivering written notices and requiring responses from the defendant. This means, for example, someone who committed a traffic offence or who failed to pay their TV licence fee would not need to go in front of a magistrate, leaving the courts system to deal with more serious offences.
We know that this disproportionately affects women. In 2019, 55% of women who were prosecuted had been charged for summary non-motoring offences, compared to 29% of male defendants. In particular, women are far more likely to be convicted for not paying their TV licence fees than men: in that same year, 74% of those convicted for TV licence evasion were women.
At a glance, the new procedure has potential. Unfortunately, in practice, the entire process relies on each individual to have received these notices and know how to respond to them, often without adequate legal knowledge or advice. What's concerning is that currently, over 60% of those served with the notices never entered a plea on whether they consider themselves guilty or not guilty of the offence. We currently don't know why this is the case - whether it's because people just aren't receiving the notices or they don't know how to respond. This means they're liable for being convicted of the crime and not even knowing about it.
As of 2019, SJP accounted for 57% of the 1.5 million cases passing through magistrates courts in England and Wales. The procedure was rolled out even more widely under Covid legislation in 2020. Since then, multiple parties have raised alarm about how it erodes the due process rights of defendants and creates potential for miscarriages of justice.
The Single Justice Procedure is likely to lead to more people being convicted, resulting in criminal records which are a massive and undue barrier to employment.
Our concern now is that the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Commons, proposes a new online court system similar to the SJP that will certainly replicate and has the risk of worsening the violation of due process rights and discrimination against women (read more about the Bill in a briefing from Transform Justice).
In September 2021, APPEAL published a briefing on the SJP, highlighting some of the most urgent issues and calling for key reforms. We endorsed the briefing alongside Big Brother Watch, Fair Trials, Howard League for Penal Reform, Transform Justice, and Commons.
As an organisation that supports women with convictions - and understands the lifelong consequences of those convictions on women's lives - we contributed to the briefing to emphasise the harmful impact of this procedure. Because the SJP is likely to lead to more people being convicted with a fine, or even prison sentence for non-compliance, we called attention to how that resulting criminal record would then become a massive and undue barrier to employment, affecting individuals’ long-term career prospects and financial stability.
Our message is clear: while reforms to the criminal justice system, and courts procedures more specifically, are needed, we must not pick 'solutions' that will only further harm women in the long run. You can read the briefing, which includes recommendations for policymakers, in full below.
If you would like to collaborate with us on this issue, please reach out to our Policy & Research Officer Olivia Dehnavi at email@example.com.