Occasionally the drive to make things more efficient creates unintended consequences. For many defendants, the arrival of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) for minor offences has brought needless stress and hardship.
The system, which was rolled out to all courts in England and Wales in 2015, was introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to speed up processing of less serious offences such as rail fare avoidance, failure to pay the TV licence, and minor driving infractions: some 750,000 of which are dealt with by magistrates every year and normally result in a guilty plea.
Under the process, anyone accused of a range of non-custodial infringements (offences that won’t result in jail time) can enter a guilty plea by post or online form and have their case dealt with in a closed court.
In some cases you can see the logic behind it. Minor offences take up court time and the majority can be dealt with quickly by administrative means.
But the SJP has generated controversy. Magistrates have accused the Government of choosing efficiency over open justice by establishing a system which moves hundreds of thousands of offences behind closed doors.
And while it arguably streamlines court processes at the administrative level, there are concerns about the procedure’s fairness. Football stars may welcome it as a means of quietly pleading away non-serious driving offences, but the SJP can also be a blunt instrument that causes pain and consternation for normal people.
One of the main issues is the blanket assumption under SJP that anyone accused of an offence has a weekly income of at least £440 (based on the current national median income for pre-tax earnings). Unless the court receives evidence to the contrary, that income level is used to assess the ability to pay fines.
With court notices normally sent by post, if someone accused of an offence has moved address, they won’t be aware they are being prosecuted. The forms they need to complete to enter a plea aren’t sent in, and as a result, they are found guilty in absentia and sentenced based on a presumed weekly income that may be higher than what they actually earn.
The reality of SJP is that many of the people falling foul of it are either on benefits, low income or no income – yet the courts persist in presuming that anyone accused of an offence can afford an expensive fine.
If an accused didn’t pay their bus fare or TV licence, it stands to reason that they are unlikely to be earning £440 per week. For skipping a £1.50 payment they could end up with a fine of £500 or more.
What if an accused person can’t read or write, or has learning difficulties? What if English is not their first language? How are they meant to navigate what is supposed to be a simplified procedure? These are serious questions that affect legal outcomes every day.
It’s worth noting that, since 2010, the government has closed more than half of all magistrates’ courts, forcing defendants and sometimes police officers to travel 50 miles or more to access the justice system.
How SJP works in practice
Under SJP defendants receive a Single Justice Procedure Form that sets the allegation and the evidence that a prosecutor intends to rely on.
The form’s main purpose is to ask what plea you wish to enter (guilty or not guilty) in response. The deadline for doing so is tight – 21 days from the posted date on the form. Response time is clearly a factor, particularly if you plan to contest the allegation.
The form provides three plea options:
- Not Guilty
- Guilty and not attend Court
- Guilty and attend Court
The Court will only accept ‘guilty and not attend court’ for the least serious offences.
What you can do if accused under the SJP
If you were unaware that you had been accused of an offence under the Single Justice Procedure and missed a court date, you may be able to submit a statutory declaration setting the conviction and sentence aside, after which you will be given a new date to attend court and begin the procedure again.
If you were aware of the allegation but didn’t understand the process or your responsibilities, and defaulted on the fine, you may be able to bring the matter back before the court. This is sometimes possible under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, s.165 (2).
Along with the Single Justice Procedure Form, the Court will send a “Means Form,” which is used to clarify your actual income. We may be able to assist you with completing and returning it, as it provides evidence the Court will use to determining the size of a fine if you either plea or are found guilty.
In any case where you have been unaware of proceedings, missed a fine because you were unclear on the procedure, or plan to plead not guilty, we would strongly advise you to obtain legal advice, and potentially have someone to attend Court with you.
How can Leslie Franks help me?
There is only so much you can do yourself when you receive a court fine. For instance, you can make the case for a reduction in instalments if you can provide evidence of low income and sparse assets.
But if you find yourself with a summons for non-payment, unpaid court fines, or consider the fine to be unlawful, we may be able to help.
As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court
Our services include:
- Presenting a court case with a view to cancelling a fine
- Organising and presenting a budget to the court
- Making a plea for a fine to be suspended
- Defending a non-payment of fine
If you have a low income or are on benefits we may also be able to represent you after an application for legal aid.
That is to say:
If the application for legal aid is successful, our services to you would be free of charge.
For more information contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit: https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.