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Last Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006, 08:03 GMT
Petty criminals could avoid court
Police officer outside Bow Street Magistrates' Court in London
Reforms are aimed at cutting the number of magistrate court cases
Offenders who plead guilty to some crimes could be punished without going to court, under legal reforms being considered by the government.

Prosecutors, with police, could decide punishments for offences such as shoplifting, theft and criminal damage - instead of magistrates.

The reforms are aimed at cutting magistrates' court cases by half.

The Conservatives said the point of a magistrates' court hearing was to set appropriate sentences.

Serious crimes, including ones that could lead to jail terms, would still have to be heard in court.

Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer and Solicitor General Mike O'Brien have drawn up the reforms.

It is hoped it will speed up the system and save money as about 350 million a year is spent on legal aid for magistrates court cases.

The workload on courts is predicted to increase by more than 20% over the next three years.

There is also a danger of sending a signal that some crimes are not so serious and can be dealt with in some administrative way
Dominic Grieve
Shadow attorney general

Defendants could still opt to appear in court, said a spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

The proposals come after Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his "respect" agenda.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs spokesman said: "Lord Falconer is a big reformer and this is the next step to make the criminal justice system more efficient, linked into what the PM said about bringing the system up from the 19th century into the 21st century."

Lord Falconer published a White Paper on magistrates courts in November, promising reforms to make the system more efficient, including dealing with offences such as council tax non-payment, TV license fee evasion and some motoring issues, by mail.

The reforms were criticised by shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve and the civil liberty group Liberty.

Court protection

"The whole point of having a hearing is so that the magistrate can impose a sentence that is appropriate," Mr Grieve told the Daily Telegraph.

"There is also a danger of sending a signal that some crimes are not so serious and can be dealt with in some administrative way."

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said defendants should not be denied "the protection of the court".

"There could be pressure on people who are innocent to plead guilty," she warned.


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