The Decline and Fall of the Criminal Justice System

Readers of this and other better blogs know all too well that the CJS has been crumbling around our ears for years now. Successive cuts to the infrastructure, fees, interpreters, Prison Service, general outsourcing have all contributed through successive governments to a system that is held together by the joint professions dwindling goodwill, sticking plaster, a hope and a prayer.

We all have horror stories of the inefficiencies racking up cost and expense, both in stark monetary terms and also in terms of time and consequential “indirect costs”. Be it the ludicrous prisoner transport costs – the “contract time” to get prisoners from one particular prison to Winchester CC was – wait for it – 15.30. Yes, you read that right – so long as G4S or Serco or whichever got the poor lag to court by 15:30, they were within contract and no penalties accrued. Bradford – murder trial before Red Judge – “contract time” for those prisoners – 12:00 – because that is conducive to a smooth-running, timely and efficient trial…..Not!

Cases delayed or stood out because no interpreter or the wrong interpreter – yeah well Spanish and Serbian both start with the same letter I suppose….

Prisoners not brought.

CPS not produced papers, documents, exhibits, files; not warned witnesses.

“Over-listing” – a new one on me. It’s like the old US airlines “over-booking” process. Too many cases not enough judges and, wait for it, not enough sitting days. Yes, the MoJ has given courts a budget of sitting days – based on last year’s figures – because we all know that these things are stable, static and predicatable. See the R. v. Coventry CC ex p McCauley CTL judgment of the then President of the QBD, now LCJ, Lord Thomas, on that topic.

We all have experience of trials dragging on for many many extra days because the Judge has 1 or 2 (or more) hours work in his court each day – mentions, bail hearings, POCAs, sentences etc – that have to be fitted in before or after the trial hearing for that day.

Well, I have just experienced a nadir of the system in a certain Crown Court South Eastern Circuit, which I shall refrain from naming for fear of incriminating Croydon CC, oops….

This case was not a particularly grave, nor particularly complex case, but neither was it at the bottom end of the spectrum – robbery and drugs, with cell-site, contested ID procedures etc.  The wrinkle was the my defendant was not the recipient of a Representation Order, and his family had mustered the funds for a private instruction.

Things had not run smoothly for months – the CPS had failed signally to serve or disclose substantial tranches of significant material. There were warnings of wasted costs applications – no difference. Three mentions were needed – with due warning, the first two of which resulted in a response let alone a satisfactory one. Indeed, the CPS managed to fail to instruct counsel for the first before the Recorder, and an unedifying scramble to find a CPS in-house available for a ritual kicking eventuated.

Finally we get some if not all material and we are trial ready….ish. It’s in a warned list, notwithstanding the private instruction – how that is meant to play out is anyone’s guess… We are given a fixed floater listing on the Monday with another two cases. None can get a court – indeed a trial actually listed in one court, with a heavily pregnant key witness, is stood out as their court is overrunning massively in a POCA.

Back the next day with an assurance of a court, with a clean 11:30 start – we’re only good for 3 to 4 days so we should finish in the week, just….

Ha! We get into to court about 12:10! Legal argument in the afternoon. Ruling the next day. But new problems – the Learned Judge (a very able and fair tribunal) has half a day’s work on Thursday and again on Friday, with a latest rising time of 3 pm. Monday is also lost entirely to “other work”. Also the officer in the case, the only reason the case is 1/2 way ready to proceed, establishes what the CPS have signally failed to – the complainant has numerous Uni exams – can’t be there Thursday, and various days the following week…

So, we get our ruling on Wednesday, eventually sort out a panel – there is a struggle to find a panel of jurors. Eventually 15 are secured – albeit they are ALL second weekers, and 3 or 4 certainly cannot sit past the following Saturday – but hey we are all certain we’ll finish in 9 days….. more fools us. The Pros opens after lunch but with the complainant unavailable the next day, there is simply no time even to start his evidence. So we adjourn lock stock and barrel to Friday for 09:30 to rise by 13:00.

We duly attend in good time but the complainant is late – we start at 10:10 – and only get Chief and one cross-exam before we have to rise ….. until Tuesday.

All the time, the defence is privately funded, and the costs and delay are racking up – were this public expense, the same would be happening but it would be the public purse taking the hit.

Back on Tuesday – the Judge has fallen ill and cannot sit on the trial that day, and the complainant has exams the next day. There are 4 jurors who cannot sit beyond the Friday. There is simply no prospect of finishing the trial.

So we have waited around all Monday, all of Tuesday, in court for a couple of hours, much of Wednesday, in court again for a few hours, early Friday for a few hours, and then Tuesday morning….. jury discharged.

The two defendants are in custody – no CTLs but arguable they would no longer bite in any event given that a jury was sworn and a trial started….

What was the first date available to relist this already stale case? Complainant and two defendants awaiting trial already for a year; co-defendant awaiting sentence for many many months. Well a sign in the list office said that “general fixtures” were off to FEBRUARY 2015!!! I sh*t you not.

After much beating of breasts, and wailing and gnashing of teeth we were given two options – possible “priority warned list” in September – which I (instructed privately) could not do, pros probably couldn’t do and was by no means a certainty to get on and definitely not with the trial judge we just had or a fixture in mid December. Yes that’s right – another 7 month delay for the witnesses, the defendants, my defendant’s family etc etc.

It really made you want to weep. This is how low we have been taken. This is what Grayling and his predecessors have achieved. How did we let this happen? How do the press not scream this from the rooftops.

Something must be done. Something must change. There is no more fat in the system. There is no meat left in the system. It is at the bone. We are getting into the marrow now, and I’m not sure how much longer that will last…..

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About utterbarrister

Long-suffering, hard-working barrister in Criminal Practice at Chambers of John Coffey QC, 3 Temple Gardens, London
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One Response to The Decline and Fall of the Criminal Justice System

  1. thebungblog says:

    Reblogged this on Do Right, Fear No One and commented:
    It’s not like this kind of thing happens only once in a blue moon. Ministers and Civil Servants are fully aware of it. Time and again, victims, defendants, and witnesses, including the vulnerable,,are told at the very last minute, that their trials cannot go ahead. No judge, or no court, because the Government did not provide one., This includes complainants in Rape, as well as child sexual assault trials.
    Just think how shattering it must be for them, having had to psyche themselves up for months, to be told they have to wait many more months.

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