British cops cannot be trusted with fines(or anything for that matter), magistrates warn
In an extraordinary attack, the Magistrates’ Association said it is a “certainty” that officers will misuse powers because they cannot be “relied on” to handle them appropriately.
The comments have been made as part of the Magistrates’ Association response to the Government’s plans to allow police to issue £60 fixed penalties for careless driving.
Police have been accused of increasingly dealing with offences using on-the-spot fines as an easy way to hit the government’s crime targets.
Magistrates are worried that the number of offences now dealt with in this way is keeping some serious offenders out of the courts.
However, police leaders insisted that the use of the fines, which has risen sharply under Labour, helped to reduce paperwork and free up officers’ time.
It leaves two of the key bodies responsible for tackling crime and administering justice at loggerheads.
MPs expressed surprise that magistrates would have accused police of being untrustworthy.
Alun Michael, a Labour member of the Commons justice committee and former policing minister, said such “grandstanding” was not helpful and both parties needed to address the issue.
Paul Holmes, a Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “It is a sorry state of affairs when the Government’s push for instant justice is driving a wedge between different parts of our criminal justice system.
“The police have been given wide-ranging powers without adequate debate. It is deeply concerning that even judges think they will abuse them.”
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, added: “This is the reality of a criminal justice system after a decade of government interference in policing.”
The Government’s proposals would make careless driving a fixed penalty offence, meaning those guilty being handed an on-the-spot fine and given three points on their licence. Currently, those suspected of careless driving are prosecuted in the courts where they can face a fine of up to £5,000 and up to nine points on their licence.
Chris Hunt Cooke, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association road traffic committee warned against this. In his response, he said: “Regrettably, recent experience with out-of-court disposals shows that the police cannot be relied on to use them appropriately or as intended.
“Once they have been given these powers, the police will misuse them, that is a certainty, and careless driving will be generally treated as a minor offence, unless serious injury is involved.
“This is a proposal that places the convenience of the police above what is right in principle, may coerce innocent drivers into accepting a fixed penalty, and is certain generally to downgrade careless driving in terms of offence seriousness.”
Mr Hunt Cooke, a magistrate for 13 years, said the offence is a subjective matter, unlike speeding or driving with no insurance, and any judgement of how serious that is should be made in a courtroom.
He said police officers will be “prosecutor, judge and jury, deciding on guilt and then sentencing the offence” .
“Faced with the choice between the heavy burden of taking the matter to court and the simplicity of issuing a fixed penalty, it is certain that many police officers will opt for a fixed penalty, however bad the driving may be.”
The Association of Chief Police Officers refused to address the accusations that officers could not be trusted to administer fines appropriately.
However, Mick Giannasi, Gwent Chief Constable who is in charge of roads policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “By dealing with offences in this way, it can result in a reduction in the amount of time that police officers spend completing paperwork and attending court, while also reducing the burden on the courts and the taxpayer.”
Hundreds of thousands of fixed penalties are handed out by police every year, including almost 1.5 million for speeding offences alone.
Police have been given increasing powers to hand out fines since Labour took power in 1997, mainly through the introduction of the penalty notice for disorder in 2004.
The fines can be handed out for so-called “low-level” offending such as littering, criminal damage, being drunk and disorderly and shoplifting.
The number of such fines has increased more than three-fold from 63,639 in 2004 to 207,544 in 2007, the most recent figures available.
The Magistrates’ Association has already said fines are being used for “inappropriate offences”, including a warning that too many shoplifters are avoiding court by being handed them.
Earlier this month, the Commons Justice Committee described the growth in out-of-court penalties as a “fundamental change” to criminal justice.
Mr Michael said it would be “nonsense” to roll back time but both the magistrates and police “need to understand why there is an issue here”.
He added: “It is not helpful to have this sort of grandstanding, whether it is from the Magistrates’ Association or from Acpo.
“It is an issue but it is not a cataclysmic case for a major division between the magistrates and the police.”
The Department for Transport is due to report back on its proposals to make careless driving a fixed penalty offence later this year.
It has already been criticised by taxpayer groups and motoring campaigners who warned police will take the easy option of handing out fines.
They also warned minor accidents and many trivial motoring offences, such as eating, drinking or smoking at the wheel, could lead to fines.
Careless driving covers a wide range of behaviour from minor inattention to driving that is only just below the level of dangerous.
The Magistrates Association fears drivers who believe they are innocent will not risk challenging the fines in court while those guilty of serious offences just short of dangerous driving will escape harsher punishment.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “Bad driving puts other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians at risk.
“Making careless driving a fixed penalty offence would help the police to enforce against bad drivers who admit fault with a minimum of bureaucracy, freeing up police resources.
“But all drivers would always have the option to contest their case in court and we would work with the police and the courts to develop guidance to ensure that cases are handled correctly.”