Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 12:04 UK

Offenders 'unpunished' by courts

Police officers
Solicitors blame police for overusing fines and cautions

Defence solicitors in England and Wales have warned serious offenders are getting off lightly because police are chasing performance targets.

They said on-the-spot fines and cautions were overused to boost convictions and avoid court cases.

The latest Home Office figures for fixed penalties show a 37% increase in 2006, with a 17% rise in cautions.

The Ministry of Justice said "it is not always necessary" for crimes to be dealt with in court.

We need to see more serious offenders in court. Magistrates are the ones who should be carrying out summary justice, not police behind closed doors
Cindy Barnett
Magistrates' Association

Penalty notices, including fixed penalty notices and penalty notices for disorder, normally involve a fine of up to 80.

They are intended to be used for minor offences, such as speeding, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour, and do not show up on criminal records.

But solicitors have told the BBC that they have experience of fines and cautions being used for more major crimes.

Digby Johnson, of the Johnson Partnership in Nottingham, said: "Offenders who would normally face court and serious sentences are walking away with a ticket in their back pocket.

Playing the system

"I've known a caution for a serious offence of actual bodily harm where the victim required stitches.

"A caution was issued for having a house full of cannabis plants. A 20-year-old man who had unlawful sex with a 15-year-old was cautioned."

Solicitors have also described how some offenders exploit the system by giving false addresses and said there was no proper confirmation of their identity. They also said half of fines are not paid in full.

Mr Johnson said: "The criminals play the system day in day out. They admit the offence quickly to qualify for a ticket, which is the fastest way of getting out of the police station."

The latest Home Office figures, and other evidence gathered by the BBC, appear to support the lawyers' claims that the number of offenders being prosecuted in court is in decline.

A spokesman for Her Majesty's Court Service said figures for the number of defendants appearing before the courts peaked in 2004, but then began to drop.

The latest figures from 2006 show appearances fell by more than 10% in two years to 1.78 million. Magistrates believe the next figures due out in November will show an even greater reduction.

'Staggering and deranged'

Reported examples of dwindling numbers of cases coming to court include:

  • One defence solicitor in Leicester says the city's court has seen workload drop by almost half since Christmas - from 120 cases a month to 70
  • The brand new magistrates court in Loughborough is said to be only working at a quarter of its capacity
  • Steve Wakefield, from the West Country, told the BBC how a man who threatened his son with a knife only received a caution, despite the fact Mr Wakefield's son and his two friends were willing to go to court as witnesses
  • Chief executive of the Justices' Clerks' Society, Sid Brighton, says members are reporting a drop in new offence cases by a quarter
  • An unnamed solicitor who works with the Ministry of Justice and who describes the current system as "staggering and deranged", says workload in London courts is easily down by half.

Cindy Barnett, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said it was a problem "gathering momentum".

Judge's gavel
The number of defendants appearing in court fell between 2004 and 2006

"We need to see more serious offenders in court. Magistrates are the ones who should be carrying out summary justice, not police behind closed doors."

The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank and file police officers, says that pressure on forces to improve crime detection rates is to blame.

A federation spokesman said officers were being "encouraged to dispense instant justice where at all possible".

'Justice being done'

The president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, Ian Johnstone, said new government plans to have just one national police target would not kick in for some time and some forces remain in a "target culture".

He added: "There are concerns about a reduction in charging standards by the Crown Prosecution Service - going for the easier option. The barrier for prosecuting has been raised."

A decision to prosecute is based on a 50/50 chance of success and whether it's in the public interest
Crown Prosecution Service

However, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) disagrees that the system is failing and claims record numbers of people are being brought to justice.

In a statement a spokesman added that a new fingerprint scanning device would help improve the system for pursuing payments.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) also denied the barrier for prosecuting had been raised.

A spokesman said CPS success rates were based on the number of defendants being "brought to justice", not the number convicted. The term refers to cases which have an outcome, such as a caution.

"A decision to prosecute is based on a 50/50 chance of success and whether it's in the public interest," she said.

System 'effective'

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice also said criminals now had a greater chance of being convicted and that the number of offenders brought to justice had increased dramatically.

A spokesman said it was not always necessary for an offender to be taken to court for an offence to be dealt with "effectively and to the satisfaction of the victim".

He added that fixed penalty notices and cautions enabled police to deal swiftly with low level offending, freeing them up to spend more time on frontline duties and more time investigating more serious offences.

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