The Government is pressing ahead with fast-track justice nationwide despite the fact that pilot schemes remain only half complete.
The speed with which new procedures are being brought in has infuriated defence lawyers, and angered the Law Society. They predict potential chaos as magistrates, solicitor's court clerks and the police struggle to get to grips with the new procedures involved in fast-track cases.
The six-month pilot schemes do not finish until the end of March. An interim report on the pilots is expected in April, with a final report in June. However, The Lawyer has learned that the Government has decided to implement fast-tracking in October – before the full results of pilots are released.
Fast-tracking, which is based on the Narey report compiled by senior Home Office official Martin Narey, means anyone arrested on straightforward, non-indictable off-ences should appear before magistrates at the next available opportunity. The aim is to reduce delays and costs by ridding the court system of its “adjournment culture”.
Currently, defendants are typically bailed for five weeks before their first court appearance.
Franklin Sinclair, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, says: “This is absolutely ridiculous. What is the point of the pilot if it is ploughing ahead anyway. These pilots are a sop. The Government doesn't care about the results of the pilots. How can it have any feedback yet?
“How is it going to make all this nationwide in such a short time?”
Fast-tracking will hit defence solicitors in the pocket, says Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers. He says it may result in redundancies at criminal legal aid firms.
Roger Ede, secretary of the Law Society's criminal law committee and its representative on the Home Office committee looking at Narey, confirms the Government is pressing ahead with a nationwide launch in October. Ede says: “I am suggesting the implementation should be delayed, but the committee has not taken that line.”
He says an October launch does not provide enough time to train police, 15,000 magistrates, 2,000 Crown
Prosecution Service lawyers and thousands of defence solicitors.
Early reports show fewer people are being charged in the six pilot areas of Blackburn and Burnley, south London, Northamptonshire, northern Staffordshire, north Wales and Tyneside.
A Home Office spokeswoman says the Government always intended to implement the Narey Report and that the pilot schemes were merely to give guidance. She says there is still enough time for training.