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Courts: Leeds Magistrates' Court

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 29 November, I informed the House (Official Report, Commons, col., WS 172) that I had formally commissioned Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Courts Administration (HMICA) to lead a thorough inspection and prepare a report to Ministers into the “resulting” and warrant processes at Leeds magistrates’ court.

I have today placed a copy of that report in the Libraries of both Houses and published it on the Ministry of Justice website at Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

The concerns about Leeds magistrates' court relate to two issues: recording the results of cases within the courts system and subsequently, in the case of recordable offences, updating the police national computer (PNC). “Resulting” is the term used for this within the courts system. The second related issue centres on a process used for withdrawing warrants issued by the court for the arrest of defendants who failed to appear in court, which were identified during investigations into court resulting in Leeds.

I accept all of the findings and recommendations of the inspectorates’ report. The Government are already acting upon them.

As a result of these investigations disciplinary action has been initiated against members of staff at Leeds magistrates’ court who are implicated in these matters and in respect of those covered by a separate judicial report to the Lord Chief Justice. 

At the time of these failings, these matters were the responsibility of West Yorkshire magistrates’ courts committee (MCC).  MCCs were independent local committees, formed almost entirely of magistrates, responsible for the “effective and efficient administration of their courts”. The Government abolished MCCs in April 2005 through the implementation of the Courts Act 2003, following a review of the criminal courts in England and Wales by Sir Robin Auld.

Following the creation of Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS) in 2005, anxieties expressed by West Yorkshire Police led HMCS to uncover evidence of historic failings at Leeds magistrates’ court. I commissioned the inspectorates to undertake their investigations to ensure that all of the historic issues had been identified and that systems were in place to ensure that any mistakes of the past would not be repeated. HMCS has co-operated fully with the inspection and has assisted them in uncovering the full scale of the historic problems at Leeds.

The inspectorates’ report paints a lamentable picture of the historic failure at Leeds magistrates’ court properly to record the results of court adjudication, dating back to 1980 with the vast majority occurring between 2001 and 2004.  

These failures led to:

a large number of adjudications not being recorded accurately at the time, or at all, meaning that the results for these cases may now have been lost;

the creation and use of a disk to store cases with missing adjudications (following the introduction of a new computer system);

the creation of artificial court registers on four occasions in 2002.  This meant inputting in respect of large batches of cases as: “entered in error”—or “audit cleardown” as an “administrative solution to remove unresulted cases from the court computer system” (page 16 of the inspectorates’ report);

the manufacturing of fabricated court adjudications on at least one occasion in 2004 involving 12 defendants and 27 offences where legal advisers made up the results by “guessing the result of the case where the true court adjudication could not be traced” (page 17 of the Inspectorates’ report); and

a situation where a prolific offender could have been sentenced to imprisonment twice for the same offence. Investigations are continuing into whether this meant the offender served additional time in prison. If there has been an error the defendant will be informed. 

The inspectorates conclude that there are now 2,206 defendants currently missing an adjudication, covering 3,260 offences of which 1,568 were recordable on the PNC. The report itself sets out the full number and nature of cases involved and describes a systematic covering up of errors.

Warrant withdrawals

A warrant is an order from a court for an individual to be arrested and brought back to the court, or to be bailed to attend a future court hearing. The warrant system is fundamental to the effective operation of the criminal justice system. In any court area a large number of warrants are issued. Some of these will be quite properly withdrawn (for example, where the defendant gives himself up voluntarily, is imprisoned by another court, has died, or the warrant has proved impossible to execute over a considerable period). 

The inspectorates also confirm considerable irregularities in the process for the withdrawal of warrants. This process had been agreed in a protocol between Leeds magistrates’ court, the West Yorkshire police and West Yorkshire CPS and was implemented between 2003-04 (see appendix 12). This was uncovered by HMCS in November 2007. Under this protocol, where there were no objections, warrants were to be withdrawn in bulk with no evidence that each case was given proper consideration by the court. This reduced the judicial warrant withdrawal process into an administrative act. This was intended to “get rid of the significant number of outstanding warrants”  (see appendix 12).

This led to warrants being withdrawn in relation to 555 defendants representing 1709 offences. Many of these offences were for low-level matters (for example, minor driving offences).  However, 67 defendants also had the record of their convictions withdrawn in relation to a total of 115 recordable offences (offences that need to be recorded on the PNC).

The inspectors have confirmed that HMCS at Leeds has now improved the controls in place to manage the number of unresulted court adjudications and all court adjudications are now included in the court register.

The inspectorates have also confirmed that there is no evidence of inappropriate warrant withdrawal or failures in the resulting process at Leeds since 2004. However, they have identified weaknesses in the underlying processes at Leeds (in relation to the quality and assurance of in court record). HMCS has already begun to implement these improvements. The inspectorates commend, “the willingness of HM Courts Service to accept responsibility for the failings at Leeds magistrates’ court even though they happened before the creation of HMCS in 2005” and the commitment to:  “fully identify and rectify all of the failures learning lessons as appropriate and engaging openly with the process”. 

Work will continue to identify results for the outstanding cases and progress has already been made to resolve and result the most serious offences. The results of 62 of the most serious offences have already been found and verified (and I can confirm the outcome of cases were appropriately resulted in the Crown Court).

The criminal justice agencies in West Yorkshire are establishing processes to review all of the warrants and proceedings withdrawn and, where appropriate, bring them before a formally constituted court. In line with the recommendations of the inspectorates a new inter-agency warrant withdrawal protocol is now in place in West Yorkshire.  In addition, we will revise the national guidance on warrant withdrawal, issued in 2006, to reinforce the key lessons learnt from the report. 

HMCS continues to work with the other agencies to seek the missing adjudications and resolve what should happen in relation to the withdrawn warrants.