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Criminal law: Police must stop acting as 'prosecutor, and jury, and judge'

In a recent speech to the Police Foundation think tank, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge claimed that police officers are too often handing out on-the-spot fines to serious criminals who instead deserve to be brought to court.

Figures released by regulators showed that one in three offenders were given on-the-spot fines, known as penalty notices for disorder, or other 'out-of-court disposals' such as cautions and warnings when they should have been given a far greater punishment since their crimes were "too frequent or serious".

The number of out-of-court disposals issued has shot up in recent years from 241,000 in 2003 to 567,000 in 2008.

Police most commonly use out-of-court disposals for cannabis possession warnings, cautions following an admission of guilt, conditional cautions and penalty notices for disorder which have a £50 to £80 fine attached.

The regulators' report also found that of 190 out-of-court disposals reviewed, 64 "did not comply with the standards set out in the guidance".

Lord Judge said: "That is an alarming proportion. In many of the out-of-court disposals the offender had a number of previous convictions, or the offence was more serious than the guidance envisaged as appropriate for out-of-court disposal. That precisely reflects my long-standing concern.

"If the figures are transposed, and I recognise the danger of doing what appears to be simple maths, something like 180,000 out-of-court disposals were not appropriately dealt with.

"Although the number of convictions in the courts has remained stable, the proportion of offences dealt with outside the court system has increased from 23 per cent in 2003 to just under 40 per cent in 2008 - that is 40 per cent of all crimes solved by the police.

"Persistent offenders should be brought to a public court, and a judgment and sentence made by a court, even if the offence happens to be at the lower end of the scale. The persistent offender should not normally escape court proceedings."

He warned that if the police continue to issue out-of-court disposals too often they will "effectively act as prosecutor, and jury, and judge".

He said: "Just as judges are not police officers, so police officers are not judges."

Related links:
Read more on this story (Daily Mail)
Read 'Stopped by the police FAQs' (FindLaw)
Find local criminal solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)