More than 6,000 crimes dealt with out of court by Suffolk Police using community resolutions including for violence, arson, theft, drugs and sexual offences
Thousands of crimes in Suffolk including arson, violence, drugs and sexual offences are being dealt with out of court – with concerns over a 'troubling and largely unchecked transfer of power to the police'.
Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by SuffolkNews, Suffolk Police revealed they had handed out more than 6,000 community resolutions since 2018, with the most for violence against a person, theft, public order offences, drug offences as well as arson and criminal damage.
Community resolutions are traditionally used by police to deal with low-level offences through an informal agreement between all parties involved and is aimed mainly at first time criminals.
Although they have been recognised as a useful tool by legal experts, the Magistrates’ Association has raised concerns that their use has ‘expanded haphazardly and without appropriate oversight and scrutiny’ and are increasingly being used for more serious offences.
Meanwhile, a Suffolk barrister has questioned whether they are being used in cases that are not appropriate and suggested more guidance for the police over their use and a closer co-operation with the Crown Prosecution Service.
Charity Victim Support said while they were effective for dealing with low level offences and offer a quick outcome for the victim, it would be concerning if they were used for serious incidents.
Suffolk Police said there were limitations to the use of community resolutions and each offence is checked to ensure it is appropriate according to national guidance. It remained a robust approach, a spokesman said, without going through the criminal justice system of court appearances and formal charges.
Between 2018 to July 7 this year, Suffolk Police administered 6,147 community resolutions, with 1,478 in 2018, 1,026 in 2019, 860 in 2020, 959 in 2021, 1,284 last year and 540 so far this year.
For districts, in East Suffolk there were 1,550, 2,700 in South Suffolk and 1,877 in the West.
There were 2,033 for violence against the person, 1,576 for theft, 779 for public order offences, 772 for drug offences as well as 703 for arson and criminal damage.
Sixty seven were handed out for sex offences.
The Magistrates’ Association
When SuffolkNews shared the figures with the Magistrates’ Association, its chief executive Tom Franklin said out of court resolutions (OOCRs) can be helpful in reducing court backlogs and giving first-time offenders the chance to avoid a declarable criminal record.
However, he pointed to the organisation’s December 2022 report on the issue which found their use had ‘varied across regions, resulting in a postcode lottery’.
It made seven recommendations to the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and police to ensure greater consistency and scrutiny of their use.
Mr Franklin said: “In particular, we recommended the development of a list of offences for which OOCRs can, and crucially cannot, be used.
“Although aimed at low-level offending, our report found that OOCRs are increasingly being administered for more serious offences, such as domestic abuse, knife crime and hate crime. This reflects a troubling and largely unchecked transfer of power from the courts to the police.”
Simon Spence KC, of Red Lion Chambers in London who was prosecution junior in the successful prosecution of Suffolk serial killer Steve Wright, said there was a place for community resolutions for low level offending but there did seem to be an increase in the use of them.
He said: “I think the police are probably using them as a coping mechanism given how stretched and under resourced the police are. The difficulty with that aspect is that it does mean the police are maybe tempted to use a community resolution for a case where actually it isn’t entirely appropriate.”
He pointed to an example of a case he became involved in where a dog in a house bit the finger of a postman putting something through the letter box.
The police dealt with it as a community resolution on the understanding the dog owner would fit a guard over the letter box but then Royal Mail took out a private prosecution against the dog owner because it disapproved of it being dealt with by way of a community resolution.
“So there’s an element of double jeopardy there,” said Mr Spence.
“I suspect there is a bit of inappropriate use of them going on.”
He said the use of them for sexual and violent cases surprised him, unless it was for very low level offences and the complainant was happy.
However, he didn’t necessarily agree with the Magistrates’ Association’s call for a defined list.
“The minute you start straitjacketing things, you run the risk of causing an injustice,” said Mr Spence.
“The minute you start pigeonholing too much and remove that element of judicial discretion or discretion on the part of the police, you’re preventing people from exercising common sense and good judgement in circumstances that maybe slightly unusual.
“I can see that there should be some guidance at least, particularly so you have consistency across the country.
“At the end of the day the question of whether to prosecute or not ultimately lies with the Crown Prosecution Service. I don’t know what degree of input they have or whether it’s the police deciding not to prosecute and offer a community resolution and it maybe there should be closer co-operation with the Crown Prosecution Service.”
In its FOI response, Suffolk Police said in cases of lower level non-penetrative offences, a community resolution may be appropriate for sexual offences, but would be subject to strict criteria.
Using a community resolution for a more serious sexual offence would be ‘extremely rare’ and would be done in consultation with the victim and Crown Prosecution Service.
Since December 1, 2022, the Out of Court Disposals Team has been reviewing and managing all the conditions for community resolutions to ensure all disposal options are appropriate and proportionate to the offence and to standardise conditions imposed across Norfolk and Suffolk.
A Suffolk Police spokesman said the use of community resolutions was predominantly limited to low level crimes and for more serious matters authority from senior ranks is required but this practice was not commonplace.
“There are limitations to the use of community resolutions and each offence is checked to ensure it is appropriate according to national guidance,” he said.
“A violence against the person offence can range from a low-level assault to a more serious matter with lasting injury, the same is true of the other offences listed.”
Tim Passmore, Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner, said he supported their use as he was a great believer in giving people a second chance.
“A community resolution provides an opportunity for offenders – particularly first-time offenders - to understand the impact they have had on their victims,” he said.
“By resolving the issue out of court the offender can make amends for the harm they have caused without suffering the consequences of a criminal conviction which can dramatically alter future life chances. I do believe if we criminalise an individual for one mistake we might be setting them off on a paths of further offending.
“This resolution method also allows officers to deal with matters more swiftly.”
He added that it was important the process protects the needs of the victim and should not be regarded a soft option or letting offenders off the hook.