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Magistrates Call for Overhaul of Secret Courts in Licence Fee Offences

The government has acknowledged a transparency issue amid calls to allow accredited journalists to observe Single Justice Procedure sittings.

Prosecution of the least serious offences, such as for speeding and TV licence fee evasion, must not be held behind closed doors to avoid a “fast-track” process, as stated by the Magistrates’ Association.

Leaders of 13,000 justices of the peace in England and Wales have published a number of recommendations urging reform of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP).
An SJP hearing involves one magistrate sitting alone, assisted by a legal adviser, dealing with lower-level offence cases, from transport fare evasion to driving without car insurance.

The Magistrates’ Association argued that while the SJP allows for speedier justice, it risks not providing enough time for magistrates to properly consider any mitigating circumstances.

The report outlined concerns that prosecutors do not review mitigation statements explaining the reasons for the offence, risking pursuing cases that are not in the public interest, especially for vulnerable defendants.

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Prosecutors should review all pleas and mitigations before cases go to magistrates, giving them the chance to withdraw a case if it is no longer in the public interest, as recommended.

Transparency and Engagement

The Single Justice Procedure’s operations should be more transparent, allowing accredited journalists to observe the sittings, the magistrates highlighted.

Journalists should have access to explanations from magistrates when deviating from sentencing guidelines to help the public understand decisions made, the report emphasized.

The 12-point plan also includes enhancing defendant engagement.

In lower-level offences, defendants can be convicted even if unaware of factors that made their actions or omissions criminal, which can be due to absence of legal representation, poor communication skills, and excessive legal jargon. Simplifying paperwork and reducing form requirements are recommended to encourage defendant engagement.

The report also called for more data on the Single Justice Procedure to be made public, including details about guilty pleas, no pleas, court attendance requests, and subsequent attendance.


Over 3 million cases went through the Single Justice Service between April 2019 and September 2023, with defendants able to plea online and have it processed the same day.

While this expedites case resolution, the Magistrates’ Association cautioned against viewing the SJP as a “fast-track” or “justice-light” process.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk suggested a revamp of the system allowing some offences to be prosecuted behind closed doors.

The government is urged to “recalibrate” and “refine” the Single Justice Procedure to enhance transparency in the interest of justice, Mr. Chalk added.

PA Media contributed to this report.

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