Single Justice Procedure extended for prosecution of companies
The Single Justice Procedure (SJP) has allowed the prosecution of minor summary-only offences that do not attract a custodial sentence, without the need for a defendant to attend court.
Introduced by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the SJP has to date been used for individuals accused of minor offences such as speeding, driving without insurance, or TV Licence evasion. It has also been used in relation to breaches of the coronavirus (COVID 19) Regulations. In 2020, 535,000 cases were dealt with under the SJP (see Explaining the Single Justice Procedure in the magistrates’ court).
A streamlined process
On receiving a SJP notice, a defendant has 21 days to reply to the charge in writing, indicating their plea and whether they consent to use the SJP. If a defendant pleads not guilty, or refuses to use the SJP, the case will proceed in the ordinary way and be listed for an appearance in the magistrates’ court. If a defendant pleads guilty and agrees to the use of the SJP, a single magistrate will consider the case and sentence the defendant. The sentence, which is ordinarily a financial penalty, is then communicated to the defendant by letter.
From 4 January 2023, the SJP has been extended to allow for the prosecution of companies, not just individuals. The procedure will operate in the same way for corporates as it does for individuals, with the only difference that a company secretary, director or solicitor will have to sign the plea and means forms on behalf of a corporate defendant.
The SJP will be used to prosecute corporates for minor offences such as:
– excess vehicle weight
– lack of or incorrect operator’s licence
– tachograph offences
– failure to give the identification of a driver
Pros and cons of the SJP for corporates
One advantage for corporates pleading guilty and agreeing to use the SJP, is that the offence will be dealt with more expeditiously than the traditional procedure for criminal litigation, which will provide certainty to the company and its stakeholders. The SJP is also a more cost-effective mechanism for defendants to use, as it avoids the need for substantial preparation and/or to instruct lawyers to represent the corporate in court. However, although the SJP streamlines proceedings, it is still advisable to seek legal advice from a criminal litigation specialist as the company will still be engaged in criminal proceedings.
The greatest benefit for a corporate of using the SJP is privacy. As the SJPs are instigated in writing, and then commonly dealt with outside of the court room by a single magistrate and legal advisor, it is often not publicly known that a prosecution is ongoing. However, the results are published online, and the public can request to see a decision.
Where a corporate offender has substantial or complex mitigation arguments to advance, it may be advisable not to use the SJP, and instead opt for a hearing, where a lawyer can make detailed submissions.
It is likely that corporates, in the absence of complex mitigation, will view the SJP as their first choice for dealing with criminal proceedings (where available for use) given its speed, lower cost and privacy.
Future of the SJP for corporates
It will be interesting to see whether, after reviewing their use for more minor offences, the government might consider extending the use of the SJP for corporates for more serious offences. That would likely be a welcome development for corporates.
Hypothetically, all criminal offences dealt with in the magistrates’ court involving corporate defendants could use the SJP, as it is not possible to imprison a company, and the punishments against corporates are most commonly financial penalties.
If the procedure were extended to more serious offences, such as offences under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, this may be welcome for corporates due to the speed and privacy of the SJP, but it would represent a significant sea change. The SJP has been used in cases which are described as ‘victimless’. Public policy should dictate that cases involving serious harm would still be brought under the traditional approach to criminal proceedings (ie commencing with a written charge and requisition or summons).
The SJP has been widely criticised over a lack of transparency and as offending the principle of open justice, notably by the Magistrates’ Association and the media. With the extension of the SJP to corporates, there will be concerns that employees, and prospective employees, may not be able to fully appreciate the approach of a corporate towards employee welfare and safety with criminal offences against corporates being brought using the SJP.
No matter the future of SJP, there will always be considerations made in respect of the public interest and open justice, but, for now, the extension of the SJP to corporates is surely welcome.
This article was first published in Lexis PSL.