Lord Leveson is a busy man. No sooner has he finished his enquiry into press ethics than he’s publishing his review of efficiency in criminal proceedings which came out last Friday, 23 January 2015.
In terms of a government review, this report had a quick turnaround – being completed in nine months. This meant that Leveson focused on changes to procedure which could be achieved without any new legislation. Many of his recommendations are designed to make better use of recent technological and other advances. In his own words:
“All are designed to streamline the way in which the business of the criminal court is conducted without losing sight of the interests of justice.”
He also stated that one of the aims of the review was to ensure that the current reductions in criminal legal aid could be justified on the basis that less work will be required to be put into each case once all the waste and inefficiency in the system was eliminated.
The main recommendations
There are 56 recommendations; some of which have as many as eight sub- points. The ones which have generated the most media attention include:
- Extending the hours of Magistrates’ Courts.
- Expanding the use of video technology to enable suspects to appear from prisons and police stations remotely.
- Providing more body cameras for police officers to record evidence.
- Stiff financial penalties for private security firms who are late in delivering prisoners to court.
- Parliament is invited to consider limiting the circumstances when defendants have the right to opt for (more expensive) jury trials.
- Remand prisoners to be held closer to the courts where they are due to appear.
Probation court reports
Lord Leveson makes a number of recommendations for streamlining sentencing, concluding that “time and resources are frequently being wasted as a consequence of the practice of adjourning the sentencing hearing so that the Probation Service can prepare a presentence report (PSR) for cases that either do not require a PSR or when an oral report would suffice.”
He makes a number of specific recommendations in section 6.7 of the review (paragraphs 152 – 156) which include:
- Giving judges greater flexibility not to order reports – he says consideration should be given to removing the presumption that a report should be obtained.
- Not requesting any form of report when the most appropriate sentence is considered to be a community order which includes a single requirement that does not necessitate the involvement of probation – for instance, a curfew order.
- Ensuring that courts have sufficient probation officers always present to provide oral/stand down reports so as to reduce significantly the number of cases which are adjourned for sentence.
It’s more than 20 years since I wrote a PSR but I always thought they were fundamental to good practice because:
- The first contact with the probation service was a “proper” one; at least an hour with a careful focus on the individual and their offending.
- This was a good opportunity to establish a rapport and honest working relationship which engaged the offender in thinking about their situation and what they wanted for the future.
- Meeting someone while they were still worried about what sentence the court would impose often made it possible to have a more honest discussion about their situation, the threat of custody concentrates most peoples’ minds.
Of course, the setting in which PSRs take place has changed considerably since the early 1990s. For one thing, OASys has replaced the PSR as the main tool for assessment and setting the purpose of supervision. For another, the PSR author is less likely to be the supervising officer and, since Transforming Rehabilitation, probably works for a different organisation (the National Probation Service as opposed to the Community Rehabilitation Company responsible for supervising all low and medium risk offenders).
It seems to me that if PSRs become a rarity, the quality of initial probation appointments will be even more critical to engaging offenders and ensuring that supervision is a meaningful and purposeful experience.
What happens next?
The Review was published on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website and no mention is made of how these recommendations are taken forward.
However, given the timing of the review, I imagine that it will be up to whoever forms the new government to decide how many of Lord Leveson’s recommendations to implement and how quickly to do so.