Rail firms accused of misusing courts as fast-track hearings unlawfully convict thousands of fare evasion

Rail firms have been accused of misusing the courts after it was revealed tens of thousands of people have been convicted of fare evasion in unlawful fast-track court hearings taking place behind closed doors.

Ministers gave permission in 2016 for train companies to pursue alleged fare dodgers in the single justice procedure (SJP), a process where magistrates convict and sentence defendants in private hearings based on written evidence.

The fast-track courts are allowed to deal with breaches of railway bylaws by passengers accused of not having a ticket or failing to pay the correct fare for a journey. But the Standard has discovered vast numbers of criminal cases brought against alleged fare dodgers under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 — which is not allowed in the SJP.

Northern Rail, which has been government-owned since 2020, is one of a host of rail firms which has brought criminal cases in this way, and it conceded this week that more than 29,000 cases have gone through the secret courts process from March 2020 to January this year. It is understood bosses put an end to the practice in the wake of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, when criminal prosecutions brought by private companies were under an intense spotlight.

The news comes as both Labour and the Conservatives signalled a willingness to reform the procedure in the next parliament, after a Standard campaign exposed injustices in the system. The Standard won this year’s Paul Foot award from Private Eye for the investigation.

Christian Waters, 46, from Leeds, challenged a penalty he was given on a Northern service in 2022 when the ticket machine at the start of his journey was broken. He became a campaigner after receiving a notice in the post and spotting the legal discrepancies.

He has been stopped by an inspector as he went to buy a ticket from a working machine at the end of his journey. He gave his name and address, lost an appeal against the initial penalty fare, and says he was “shocked” to then face a criminal case, rather than civil proceedings, over the unpaid fare.

“I have followed the Post Office story quite closely for five years and I thought ‘this is a similar thing’”, he said: “It offends me that you have got a private company misusing the criminal courts. I’m quite happy to fight, to try to hold them accountable. It’s not a mistake, they have done this thousands of times, it’s a systematic policy.” Northern eventually settled the case with Mr Waters for £3.50, after previously demanding £135 to end the criminal case and denying there was a legal problem.

The Standard has found other rail firms, including Great Western Railway and Abellio, have also brought SJP cases. Those firms are not subject to the Freedom of Information regime, so the numbers of cases are unknown.

DfT OLR Holdings Ltd (DOHL), which runs Northern, acknowledged in response to Mr Waters’ complaint that he had raised “potential procedural issues with the prosecution process”.

When contacted by the Standard, it said: “We stopped bringing new cases under the single justice procedure for offences under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 in January and are reviewing its previous use.”

Magistrates called in March for a radical overhaul of the Single Justice Procedure, after accepting they are sometimes rushed into decisions, have not received adequate training, and object to the lack of transparency – as members of the public and press are banned from attending SJP hearings.

The Standard’s investigation has previously revealed unlawful prosecutions brought against children for minor offences, and against parents whose offspring were accused of truancy.

It has also uncovered the harsh reality of convictions handed out in hearingslasting less than a minute.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk on Wednesday’s hailed The Standard’s reporting and accepted the next government will “need to look again at SJP to makesure that this important mechanism is operating as intended and that standards of fairness are being upheld.”

“If changes are required, so be it”, he added.