Committal hearings to be scraped

The Government are to do away with committal hearings, although it's worth saying that this policy was announced about 16 trillion years ago but nothing seems to have happened since 2001 when committal hearings were abolished for indictable only offences.

I am aware that some of my readers may not have the first clue what I'm on about, so I'll explain a little - if you know what a committal hearing is then skip this paragraph.  All criminal cases begin life in the magistrates court.  Some cases can be tried in either the magistrates or Crown Court, these are called "either-way offences".  If the magistrates decide the case is too serous for them to handle, or the defendant chooses to have his case heard by a jury then the case is committed for trial.  This means that the prosecution are given several weeks to photocopy their witness statements and produce whatever evidence they intend to rely upon.  At a committal hearing the papers are served upon the defence and the court.  If there is a case for the defendant to answer (what is known as a prima facie case) then the case is formally committed to the Crown Court and the defendant will appear there at some point in the future where he will enter a plea and a trial will be heard some months after the first appearance in the Crown Court.

My first ever appearance in court was a committal hearing.  It lasted approximately 30 seconds, I nodded once to indicate I was content for the case to be committed and asked that legal aid be extended to cover the Crown Court hearing.  It was painfully obvious to me that these hearings are pointless, cause delay and expense for everybody involved, including the defendant, court, prosecution, defence solicitors, police and victim (victims don't attend but the committal stage does delay when they get to have a trial and tell their side of the story).

From my first experience in court nothing has changed my view that committal hearings can and should be abolished.  In theory, the committal hearing allows the defence to challenge prosecution cases that lack any evidence against the defendant.  In practise, the committal stage is used by the defence and court to punish ill-prepared prosecutors who fail to get their papers in order prior to the hearing date.

The committal hearing is there to ensure that there is a case for the defendant to answer and so they are, quite rightly, very biased in the prosecutions favour.  Committal hearings remain important because there is no way of easily challenging a case once it has been committed except by taking it to trial.  However, this is easily solved.  Simply allow the defence to have the right to make an application to dismiss at the first hearing in the Crown Court.  The overwhelming majority of cases will remain unchallenged.  Those that are challenged should suffer no delay because the hearing in the Crown Court should come around much faster without the 4-6 week adjournment prior to the committal hearing that defendants currently experience.

The Times reported today that, "... the move will lead to concerns among some solicitors, who fear that efficiency reforms threaten to compromise the interests of justice."  I suspect that the Times is trying to create some controversy over this change.  In reality, I think most solicitors will realise that this is a win/win situation.  Defendants and victims win because their cases are resolved more quickly.  Solicitors win because they haven't been paid to conduct committal hearings for some time now and so they'll no longer have to do massive amounts of pro bono work on every single case they take (bear in mind a standard Crown Court trial fee for a two day burglary trial is now £386.54, which currently covers at least two hearings in the magistrates court, at least two hearings in the Crown Court, the time spent reading the papers, attending on the defendant, taking any witness statements and preparing the various documents that are required before a trial can take place), so removing the committal hearings will effectively give solicitors a small increase in the potential profit on each case, which I can tell you is non-existent as nobody can make a profit on fees that small for that much work.

In short, this is one good thing that this or the previous government have done to the Criminal Justice System for a very long time.


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