Civil libertarians had noticed that the Blair administration is impatient with conviction rates. We have seen real attempts to reduce the availability of jury trials and to lower the burden of proof. And we have had strong hints from the Prime Minister that he doesn’t regard the principle of innocent until proven guilty as applicable in the modern world.
Astonishingly, however, none of those is enough. A guilty plea may in future permit prosecutors to operate without court process. Idiotically the BBC captions this as “Petty criminals could avoid court“: but a better headline would be “criminal convictions without courts”. People will be convicted and punished by prosecutors and police if prosecutors or police can persuade them to confess. This is a recipe for abuse.
Magistrate’s courts may not be the most reliable finders of fact or interpreters of law, but they have no direct interest in the guilt of the defendant or in clearing up unsolved crimes. They can and do hear defenses and pleas in mitigation. They can, and very occasionally do, insist on entering a not-guilty plea if the defendant appears to be have been browbeaten or to be incapable of understanding his position.
The inevitable consequence of introducing summary police punishment will be an assertion on behalf of the authorities that those who are convicted at trial instead of submitting to official processing ought to be more heavily punished because they have somehow wasted the court’s time. Which will place the accused under more pressure to make admissions regardless of guilt, regardless of whether prosecutors abuse their position.