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February 23, 2018

And get me to the court, get me to the court, for Gawd’s sake, get me to the court on time

FTA is the bane of a police officer’s life. If a defendant doesn’t turn up for their court appointment, they have failed to appear (FTA) and a warrant is usually issued for their arrest. The police have to find the person, arrest them, take them to the police station, keep them in the cells overnight and take them to court the next day. The court then has to keep the person in their cells until their court hearing, at which point most people who failed to appear will be released having been punished for not turning up previously (usually with a fine) and for the original offence.

Huge amounts of money are spent in this process – I estimate at least £1000 per FTA. Yet the people who don’t turn up for their court hearing don’t usually have any intention, or hope, of evading justice. People who FTA have often forgotten they were supposed to be in court. They may have addictions, mental health problems or learning difficulties or just not be able to read. They may have been sent a letter which got lost.

There are thousands of defendants who miss their court appointments every year and it causes chaos with scheduling cases. The system relies on people turning up, but its not clear that the remedies used now are proportionate. The risk of someone failing to appear is one of the key reasons used for imprisoning someone on remand pending their trial. The judgment is made on the basis of their FTA record. But this assumes that FTA is intentional, and that there is nothing to be done to help people turn up.

But something can be done to help people turn up, and a little bit of money goes a long way. In New York they have used behaviour change techniques to reduce the number of people not turning up. They’ve tried two very simple approaches

  1. They have redesigned the courts summons form to make much clearer the court date and the sanctions for not appearing.
  2. They send text messages to each person reminding them to come to court. Defendants get three text messages, seven, three and one days before the court hearing. All warn of the consequences of not turning up “Remember, you have court on Mon Jun 03 at 346 Broadway Manhattan.[Tickets could be dismissed or end in a fine (60 days to pay).] [Missing can lead to your arrest.]”

The clearer form reduced FTA in New York by 13 %, and the text messages reduced it by 26 %. The Behavioural Insights Team are piloting approaches like this with an English police force and will be publishing results later in the year. I think it would also be worth our courts trying to text family members and support workers of the defendant (to avoid the “head in the sand” reaction), and to adapt tagging software so it could give reminders about court dates.

As it is, we have an increasing population on remand, many of whom are in prison solely to ensure they do appear at their next court hearing, and imminent court closures mean the number of people who fail to appear is only likely to go up.

Very little research has been done on the impact of court closures on whether people turn up to court. It makes sense that fewer people will turn up if faced with a longer (some are 2 hours each way), more difficult and more expensive journey to their local court. Some research has been done on the impact on closures in Suffolk where magistrates’ courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft have closed: “using quantitative data, I found that the impacts have been most significant for defendants and defence witnesses (a doubling of travel time costs). In addition, I used FTA warrants data provided by the courts to examine impacts pre-closure and post- closure and found that FTA warrants increased significantly for defendants coming from areas further away from Ipswich”.

Yet the consultation on eight court closures published by HMCTS says that closing courts will have no impact on whether people turn up or not: “there will be no impact on the ability to hear cases in magistrates’ courts”.

Changes to police bail may also be leading to people failing to turn up. Last year restrictions were imposed on how long anyone could be bailed by the police while they investigated the alleged crime. Police bail involves regular reporting to the police station and many defendants on police bail have a lawyer who also keeps in contact. Now the police don’t bail nearly as many people but, when they are ready to charge, they send a summons in the post. Not surprisingly, given that defendants often don’t have stable accommodation, many of these letters don’t get to them. And such defendants are much less likely to have a lawyer to remind them of the court appointment.

A defence lawyer described his clients to me: ‘it’s only a minority that are practiced, good criminals- good in the sense of being good at what they do. Most of them are, pardon my French, f**king idiots. But they’re all treated as if they’re a vicious threat to humanity, like serial killers are.’ At the moment our approach to FTA is often using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Given the huge resources spent taking action after someone doesn’t turn up to court, and given court closures, and changes to police bail, if would make sense for us to reform both the system for informing defendants they have a court date, and for reminding them of it.