Former Met Commissioner Tim Godwin on swift justice

Tom-GodwinTim Godwin, former acting Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, discusses last summer’s riots and new ways to streamline the criminal justice system with Owen McQuade.

“One of the key issues that were very apparent in the early days,” Tim Godwin tells agendaNi about last August’s riots, “was the fact that a lot of people felt that they could get away with it: that crime didn’t have any consequences, the criminal justice system [was] too slow, too bloated, too bureaucratic.”

But over a number of years, Godwin had been working with the judiciary, the courts and the public prosecutors, “to actually put in place an understanding of each other’s needs.” This paid off as the criminal justice agencies were able to establish courts “very quickly” during the riots, with the processing of cases of “hundreds of offenders within hours of being charged.” The result was “a significant impact on the continuing violence, because very quickly it was shown through the media that crime does in fact have a consequence.” 

Swift justice was not without its demands, admits Godwin, who was acting Commissioner at the time of the riots. He and his colleagues had to “prey on the goodwill of a lot people” at the Courts Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, who “worked long hours putting cases together.” In the areas of evidence and first hearings, this involved implementation of “all the streamlined bureaucracy debates that we’d been having,” whilst ensuring that defence lawyers were willing to represent offenders as they went through the court process.

“One of the things that we learned from that was actually there were a lot of people with a common objective here,” the former Association of Chief Police Officers lead for criminal justice recalls. “Justice had to be done, had to be seen to be done, but at the same time, it had to be done fairly and in the interests of justice actually being served.”

More than 4,000 people have been arrested since the London riots.


Justice is, of course, not usually known for its speed. Godwin believes that this can be tackled by building relationships between the different criminal justice agencies. “One of the ones that often gets forgotten is defence,” he states. “You got to look at what the bureaucracy is, what requirements and evidence do you need for first hearings? You have to streamline that bureaucracy,” he explains. This needs to be supported, however, by senior judiciary and magistracy.

The virtual court, he believes, has immense potential. First piloted in Camberwell, London, and Medway, Kent, in May 2009, defendants have been able appear in first court appearances via video-conferencing, “and actually be dealt with direct from the police station where they’ve just been charged for the offence.”  The initiative has now been extended to Cheshire and Hertfordshire.

The first case in Camberwell involved a domestic violence offender, who “within four or five hours of being arrested, found himself in Brixton prison having been convicted of assaulting his partner.” Godwin says that this speedy process “had a dramatic impact on the victim in the sense of the sheer relief” of knowing that the threat was lifted.  Through a ‘Live Links’ pilot project, police witnesses have also been able to give evidence remotely.

Benefits from virtual courts are multiple, according to Godwin. Substantial time can be saved through fewer wasted police hours waiting for witnesses to be called and defendants being held in custody for significantly less time. Guilty pleas at first appearances will increase, he believes. Costs can be saved through reduced facilities requirements, transport costs and a higher percentage of on-the-spot fines. Magistrates’ time can also be used more efficiently.

Victims and witnesses can also give evidence remotely, he states. “It is being rolled out, but it’s very very slow,” he explains. This involves people going to a victim or witness centre “where they’re properly looked after, where they’re not disrupted.” In not having to go to court, they don’t have to be confronted by an offender or their friends.

“In terms of actually making that happen, you actually have to have agreement between the key strategic leads,” Godwin states. “And it’s always the middle tier that sort of slows it down, and it’s that bureaucracy.”

Other technological innovations are needed, he believes. “We don’t maximise the opportunities that we’ve got. You need single case files that are digital. Why have we got loads of bits of paper in the system? This day and age, it’s rather silly,” Godwin states, contrasting it with the effectively paper-free banking system. Single digital case filing is due to be implemented in England and Wales’ criminal justice system by the end of the spring.

Procurement is central to this. “It requires different skills. It requires technology,” says Godwin, but it is being impeded when different agencies such as the Court Service and the police have different procurement contracts.

This difficulty is the private sector’s opportunity, believes Godwin, who now works for Accenture. The capital investment in public services is not presently available, he believes.

“How do we actually charge in a way,” he he asks, “which actually means that you’re giving the savings first?” This requires innovation in which the private sector only gets paid “when the benefits have really been found by the public services.” He concludes: “Different mentality, different way of doing it.”

Profile: Tim Godwin

After leaving school, Tim Godwin spent six years in the Merchant Navy, where he achieved the rank of second mate, before joining Sussex Police in 1981. He served there until joining the Metropolitan Police in 1999. He was Deputy Commissioner from December 2008 to December 2011, and acting Commissioner from July 2011 to September 2011. Godwin has worked for Accenture’s defence and public sector group since January this year. He is a member of the Sentencing Council for England and Wales.

In the Queen’s new year’s honours list for 2003, Godwin was awarded an OBE. In the 2009 new year’s honours list, he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal.


Justice Conference 2012: Tim Godwin interview with Owen McQuade

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