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How are defendants treated in Magistrates’ Courts?
Courtwatch London research on how defendants are treated in magistrates' courts.

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The Wild West

Yesterday (29 May 2024) CourtWatch London published its second report on open justice in London’s magistrates’ courts. Entitled “The Wild West? Courtwatching in London magistrates’ courts”., CourtWatch London was a mass court observation project where citizen volunteers observed magistrates’ court hearings and reported what they saw. From July to December 2023, a diverse group of 82 volunteer members of the public (courtwatchers) visited their local London magistrates’ courts armed with a booklet of observation forms and a small amount of training. The project focused on three magistrates’ courts in order to build a community of volunteers around each court. The focus courts (Highbury Corner, Croydon and Thames) were selected based on the high volume of cases they see, although courtwatchers did visit some other London Magistrates’ Courts in addition.

Between them they observed over 1,100 hearings and reported on the treatment of defendants, the decision-making of magistrates and district judges and their experiences of attending the magistrates’ court as a public observer. This second report summarises courtwatchers’ observations of the court process and decision-making in London magistrates’ courts.

Findings

The first Courtwatch report highlighted how courtwatchers found it hard to comprehend the court system. Their observations suggested defendants were struggling too. It is obvious that people cannot have a fair trial without a clear understanding of what they are accused of, what is happening in court, and the implications of the court process.

Courtwatchers observed magistrates’ courts often falling short. Defendants were usually physically isolated from the rest of the courtroom in the secure dock, where it was all too easy to ignore them for the majority of the hearing. A significant minority of defendants appeared without a lawyer. Courtwatchers felt that unrepresented defendants were severely disadvantaged by their lack of legal advice, even though court staff and judges made efforts to explain things.

Defendants who needed interpreters were some of the worst served by the court. And courtwatchers were alarmed to see hearings going ahead despite some defendants being clearly unwell.

Interestingly, despite these concerns, courtwatchers felt judgments made were overall fair, reasoned and practical. They appreciated magistrates and judges who took the time to get to the bottom of things and to find the most productive solution for the individual in front of them.

Courtwatchers were most frustrated by what seemed to them ineffective or counterproductive sanctions. This included fines and other court costs which had to be paid by people of severely limited means, or punitive sentences given to people with serious drug addiction or mental health problems which did nothing to address those issues.

Courtwatchers also felt some time was wasted on cases which should not have been in court at all. Courtwatchers usually agreed with the court’s decision to remand people, although their reports highlighted some examples where bail might have been more appropriate.

A few courtwatchers picked up on inconsistencies in how defendants were dealt with which they saw as evidence of racial bias.

Inefficient

Courtwatchers were shocked by what they perceived to be the inefficiency of courts. They expected hearings to start on time and to run continuously throughout the day. They were concerned that the valuable time of the many professionals in the room was being wasted. It was hard for courtwatchers to work out why so little was happening since court staff and judges seldom explained the delays. As courtwatchers gained experience, they gradually discerned the reasons – prosecution and defence advocates who didn’t have the right information in advance, nor the time to prepare for hearings, defendants not turning up for their hearing (often through no fault of their own) and technology which didn’t work well.

Recommendations

The report argues that the  fundamental flaw in our courts system highlighted by courtwatchers – that many defendants don’t know what’s happening in the court and so can’t meaningfully participate in the process – needs urgent action. 

The authors advocate simpler court proceedings so the process is intelligible to a layperson, and legal aid available for a wider range of circumstances. At the very least, it recommends introducing a support service for defendants, available in every magistrates’ court. The use of court fines should be reduced, particularly for people whose poverty was a contributing factor to their offence.

Like the recent report from the Centre of Justice Innovation, Courtwatch argues that fines should be replaced with sentences which instead address the drivers of crime.

The authors say more research is needed to understand the main causes of court delays and how they might be addressed. They also suggest that the number of cases listed could be reduced by discontinuing some very old ones and encouraging the police to offer more out of court resolutions for lower level crimes.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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