Summary Justice, Fast - but Fair?

Professor Rod Morgan
Monday, 25 August 2008

Government policies aimed at diverting minor offences from court have resulted in `extensive net-widening', with individuals `being brought within the ambit of the criminal justice system who previously were ignored or dealt with informally', claims a study published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The study, Summary justice: Fast - but Fair?, has been written Professor Rod Morgan, a distinguished government-appointed adviser and former chair of the Youth Justice Board.

`Summary justice' powers such as cautions, Fixed Penalty Notices and Penalty Notices for Disorder have been encouraged by the government as a speedy way of dealing with minor offences without resort to costly and time-consuming court processes. Professor Morgan points out that many minor offences have been diverted from the courts, as the government intended. But there is also `clear evidence of net-widening', Morgan argues, including the `too ready criminalisation of children and young people for minor offences'. `There is a need for a thoroughgoing review', he concludes, for there 'remains a risk' that `persons and behaviours will be criminalised where both commonsense and the public interest suggest that informal control systems and informal sanctions would better apply.'

The report highlights a number of trends that Professor Morgan argues merit further scrutiny. These include:

  • Rises in the numbers of convictions for violence offences, but much larger rises in the resort to cautions. Convictions for serious indictable violence offences were 11 percent higher in 2006 compared with 2001, while cautions were 92 percent higher. The comparable figures for less serious indictable offences were 19 percent for convictions and 195 percent for cautions.
  • There is no evidence to support the contention that serious offences that might normally be expected to come to court are being dealt with pre-court.
  • Regional differences between different areas of the country in the use of summary powers. As decision-making is made in private rather than in open court this has resulted in an `accountability deficit'.

Professor Morgan said,

`The increased use of pre-court summary justice is one of the most important elements in the government's strategy for modernising the criminal justice system. The implementation of the strategy has received virtually no research, inspectoral or parliamentary scrutiny. The trend towards pre-court summary justice should more incisively be scrutinised to ensure that justice is being meted out fairly and effectively. We cannot be wholly confident that this is so.'

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said,

`This incisive analysis raises important questions about the consequences of government policies to divert minor offences from the courts. The greater use of summary powers appears to have resulted in more people being dragged into the criminal justice system.'