Number of rail fare evasion single justice procedure cases ‘probably unlawful’

The Chief Magistrate said a letter was sent to those involved in the test cases explaining ‘the process was probably unlawful’.

About 75,000 prosecutions of alleged fare evasion brought by train companies under the controversial single justice procedure were “probably unlawful” and could be quashed, a court has heard.

The train firms involved – including Northern Rail and Greater Anglia – prosecuted alleged fare evaders under a system which allows certain offences to be prosecuted in private rather than in open court, known as the single justice procedure (SJP).

In 2016, train operating companies were given powers to prosecute alleged offenders under the SJP.

But a number of these cases against alleged fare evaders have been brought under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 – which is not allowed in the SJP, the Evening Standard has previously reported.

In a hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring said his initial view was that “all of the offences which were not covered by (the) 2016 order but prosecuted under SJP process are void”.

He said there “isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution” for the tens of thousands of cases.

Mr Goldspring added that “there’s no doubt that had the 2016 order allowed this process then the vast majority of these cases would properly have been convicted”.

He said that the principle of innocent until proven guilty is “only really as good as the process” it takes to get there.

The hearing involved six “test cases” of fare evasion prosecutions and Mr Goldspring said 74,860 cases are thought to have been involved so far.

He asked the train companies to look into how many cases are believed to be affected in total.

Mr Goldspring said a letter was sent to those involved in the test cases explaining the process used was “probably unlawful”.

The court knows about a “certain number of the cases but it’s quite a task”, Mr Goldspring said, and added it would be “much easier if each of the prosecuting authorities are able to say we know there are these cases”.

He said: “I’d be anxious to avoid we come to a conclusion then miss a few people.”

Mr Goldspring questioned what would happen with “fines collected” and said in cases there could have been “bailiffs that are out”, adding “there’s a lot of moving parts to it”.

The single justice procedure was set up in 2015 to allow magistrates to decide on minor offences, such as using a television without a licence or driving without car insurance, without defendants going to court.

However, the Magistrates’ Association said in March “there are concerns” that cases are being brought before magistrates without prosecutors, such as the DVLA or TV Licensing, reading mitigations and that many of its members are “uncomfortable” with the system.

The same month, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk told Parliament that although he believed the SJP “works well”, there were issues surrounding transparency which needed “recalibrating”.

Last year, 787,403 criminal cases were dealt with by magistrates’ courts under the SJP.

The Chief Magistrate said he proposed to hold a case management review hearing next month and the train companies which prosecuted the test cases should provide written submissions and if there is not a consensus, if they do not agree with his view, there will be another hearing.

Another hearing will be held at the same court on July 19.

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