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Tagged In:  Probation

Could we see US style tribunal courts where the same judge would hear all the criminal, civil and family court hearings related to a single case? 

Well, it’s a concept the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is looking into following Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s visit to the US where he examined the Judiciary’s role in overseeing the enforcement of sentences.

Courts focused on domestic abuse

It’s certainly something the Centre for Justice Innovation is calling for with the use of ‘problem-solving courts’ focusing on domestic abuse. We already have specialist domestic violence courts (SDVCs) in this country where criminal justice staff specialising in DV are clustered to provide support during allocated times in the week, but civil and family court hearings are still currently heard in separate courts. 

Sentencer involvement could extend beyond sentencing

Potentially, ‘problem-solving courts’, if introduced, could see judges’ and magistrates’ involvement extend beyond the point of sentencing, overseeing civil and family issues, as well as the rehabilitation of offenders. In fact, Gove mentioned his enthusiasm for the concept in a recent address to the Magistrates Association

One of the courts Gove mentioned in his address was Newark municipal court in New Jersey, where those convicted of an offence are regularly brought back for an assessment of the progress they have made on their community sentence, with a series of influencing factors considered. The judge can then change an offender’s sentence for failing to comply, although they work very closely with probation officers and those delivering social care to arrive at their decision.  

There’s a potential benefit for victims of domestic abuse. The CJI’s The Better Courts: a Blueprint for Innovation report highlights that victims are reluctant to come forward. This is, in part, attributed to the system itself, with victims having to appear in several different courts.

“One judge, one family”

The report’s recommendation for “one judge, one family” where a single judge would hear criminal, civil and family cases and monitor the offender’s progress, is one that is bound to gather momentum. Arguably, with £700 million being re-invested into the courts and tribunals system to create what the MoJ calls “a swifter, more proportionate justice system’, we see a more central move towards ‘problem-solving’ courts. 

If introduced, such courts could potentially see judges and magistrates play a more active role in helping offenders address their behaviour, extending beyond domestic violence to alcohol and drug abuse. 

Support from the Judiciary 

This can only be achieved, however, with the support of the Judiciary and Lord Chief Justice. In the past, ‘problem-solving’ courts have failed to achieve their backing, although Gove has reportedly expressed his optimism that they are now on board with the proposals. 

One of the hurdles though will be achieving judicial continuity with lay magistrates, since the presence of the same judge is an essential element within problem solving courts in the US. Making a rota in England and Wales could be difficult since lay magistrates do not sit every day. Even now, magistrates who preside over a trial do not often sentence that same offender if they are found guilty. 

Potential impact on probation

The impact on Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service (NPS) will also need to be carefully considered, although if introduced such courts could be beneficial. After all, we’re already seeing the emergence of courts that are not too far away from the US model. If we look at Manchester/Salford Magistrates’ court, as an example, they’ve introduced a ‘problem-solving’ court for female offenders, which involves the NPS, CRC, the Salford Together Women Project (TWP) and other key agencies meeting with women to agree a set of interventions offered by the court as part of a community order. This agreement is included within the pre-sentence report and is already resulting in magistrates making community orders rather than sending women to prison.  

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