Many people who have been accused of committing a crime for a non-imprisonable offence – such as many motoring offences – in the UK are being convicted without their knowledge.
The Single Justice Procedure Notice (SJPN) came into force on 13th April 2015 under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which applies to adults charged with summary-only, non-imprisonable offences. The notice was brought in to enable such cases to be dealt with by a single magistrate and a legal adviser on paper without the attendance of either a prosecutor or defendant. The defendant is able to engage with the court online or in writing, rather than attend a traditional courtroom.
An SJPN has to be sent to the defendant explaining the offence that is giving rise to the proceedings and the options available, which are usually to plead guilty or not guilty and to request a court hearing. However, the notice does not say that any defendant can legally opt out of this procedure and there is no specific time period to handle proceedings formally, which is usually 21 days from the date of posting.
Failure to respond to an SJPN can mean a defendant is convicted in their absence without their knowledge, and they will only be made aware of the conviction when they receive a notification that proceedings have been dealt with in their absence. The traditional form of handling these type of offences would include some form of requisition or summons with a specific date and time to physically be in attendance at court.
Since the new procedure came into force in 2015, there have been numerous cases of people being convicted without their knowledge because, for whatever reasons (e.g. incorrect address details), a notice has not been received. This means there are a magistrate and a legal adviser handling cases without anyone being there to make decisions.
Another issue with SJPNs is that when someone accused of a summary-only, non-imprisonable offence receives a notification and they fill in the relevant form online and send the necessary paperwork to the court, this isn’t received by the court and proceedings continue in their absence.
There have been situations where people have been disqualified from driving in their absence and subsequently arrested for driving whilst disqualified, which is a serious offence and can carry severe penalties, including six penalty points, a fine of up to £5,000 and even imprisonment for up to six months.
Furthermore, some of the offences associated with these cases can be dual-charged, such as failing to give information and speeding, which can also carry severe penalties. Traditionally, these cases would require a defendant to physically attend court and request
one of the charges to be removed in return for a guilty plea to one offence. There have been instances, in particular at Bradford Magistrates’ Court, where an individual has pleaded guilty to both offences not knowing what they were pleading guilty to and as a result, it has gone before the Single Justice Court and they have been convicted of both offences. In my opinion, this is absurd because if the defendant has accepted guilt for one offence, e.g. speeding, then they should withdraw offence related to failure to give information, or vice versa – they shouldn’t be convicted of both.
The whole purpose of someone being convicted of failing to give information is if they have forgotten or failed to give the information at some point, meaning they would only be guilty of that offence.
The SJPN procedure was brought in to make the process streamlined and speed it up; however, it is causing numerous issues as defendants are having to go back to court to make a declaration to reopen a case and start afresh as they are being convicted without their knowledge.
Another area of confusion is that SJPNs are being sent directly from police forces, meaning someone who is unfamiliar with these documents could be confusing them with a Notice of Intended Prosecution (NIP), as traditionally these were the documents issued by the police. The type of people that SJPNs will be issued to, based on the offences they cover, is likely to be ones not familiar with the law who might be experiencing their first accusation for committing a criminal offence. Therefore, it is understandable that some people could be misled by a letter from the police rather than a document that obviously states the involvement of the courts, which could result in them assuming it is a police matter only, and not a Court matter.
While this procedure does save time for court, on the whole, it is resulting in injustice to individuals who are not familiar with proceedings. Until the procedure is made absolutely clear, SJPNs will remain to be a secret system used by the courts and the HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS).