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Why snail mail leads to no bail

Penelope Gibbs
21 Feb 2020

More and more defendants are charged or asked to attend court by post. Most crimes are not prosecuted by the police but by authorities like BBC (for not having a TV licence) or Transport for London (for fare evasion). All these criminal charges are sent out by post to the address given by the defendant. The defendant can respond to the charge – guilty or not guilty – online or by post. But most don’t respond at all, maybe because they don’t get the letter, or because they don’t understand how to deal with it. Thousands of people are convicted in their absence every year, and may not know for years that they have a criminal record.

It seems odd to carry on charging by post when its clear that defendants are not “effectively participating” in the process. But post is used to charge fairly serious crimes too. The police release suspects “under investigation” for months, or even years, then suddenly they may send out a notice (postal requisition) informing the suspect they have been charged and they should turn up in court on X date. Postal requisitions are being sent out for rape, murder and child abuse and for less serious crimes. Just over a third of all indictable and either way offences are charged by post. The expectation is that, even months or years after the incident, the defendant will be living at the same address, open the letter and turn up promptly at court.

Not surprisingly it often doesn’t work that way, as some new statistics reveal. This data is for failure to appear (FTA) at a court hearing. Overall numbers of those failing to appear appear to have decreased – probably because, in summary cases, courts have been instructed to try/sentence someone in their absence if they don’t turn up. So the number of FTA warrants will be much smaller than the number of defendants who don’t turn up for their court hearing. This means that court closures may be having a much bigger impact on attendance than we thought.

As it is, postal requisitions appear to be having a devasting impact on court appearances and a knock on impact on police who then have to deal with FTA warrants. Postal charges/requisitions have increased more than six fold since 2010 – 334,053 were sent out in 2018. 9% of these defendants did not turn up for their court appearance. That results in 31,108 aborted court hearings and huge amount of court and police time spent processing FTA warrants. A smaller percentage (6%) of those charged in person result in FTA.

Given the resources involved in missed hearings, FTA, and defendants in single justice procedure charges asking to reopen proceedings (since they never received the charge), I’m slightly surprised the police and the court continue to use snail mail. Letters are sent first class but not tracked. In some cases, the defendants are homeless, some have moved home, and some post gets lost in blocks of flats and hostels. So many postal charges may not actually be received by the defendant. And then even if they do receive the notice they may lose or ignore it. They shouldn’t, but they do, particularly if they lead a chaotic life, have learning difficulties or mental health problems. There is no point railing against human behaviour, or against people who move home and don’t tell the authorities. We need a system which works with normal human behaviour and doesn’t rely on first class post.

How do we resolve this problem? Through intelligent research and intelligent nudging. We need to know what happens to all these postal requisitions and single justice procedure notices. And we should think of other ways of letting people know they are charged with a crime. In New York they have successfully tried texting defendants. That seems a no brainer. But there is also email, or an actual phone call. I estimate that each FTA cost at least £2000 to process. Surely a phone call would be cheaper?