Monday Message 23.09.19
Caroline Goodwin QC
THIS IS ALL AKIN TO A BUNGLING WHITEHALL FARCE:
We could all be forgiven if we thought what was unfolding before our eyes was a Whitehall farce of a type that theatre goers used to enjoy in the 60’s. A confluence of mishaps, misunderstandings, twisted storylines, scenery that would wobble, apparent loss of lines by actors resulting in comedic mayhem. It would be funny if it were not so serious.
COURTS STANDING EMPTY, SERVING JUSTICE, SERVING VICTIMS?
Court sitting days have been cut by almost 15 per cent, from 97,400 in 2018-19 to 82,300 in 2019-20. We have a backlog of cases, listing dates for trials are being put further and further back and yet court rooms are sat empty. It is a crisis. Crime is on the rise. And I want to be really clear about this, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Judges, they are as much a pawn in this situation as anyone. It is a government iron fist policy unyielding, inflexible and downright unworkable, a single objective being to save money no matter what the cost or consequences. The charm offensive of using language and hyperbole that says that complainants of crime are being looked after is completely undermined by the fact that courts are not being opened up to hear their cases.
The basic result of the reduction in sitting days is that cases that have a trial date are simply not being reached. Complainants, witnesses and defendants, never mind the professional inconvenience, are being let down. Counsel is literally on a zero hours contract when a listed trial is vacated.
FRIDAY THE 13th:
Last week at Southwark, a case listed for trial, R V GURECKIS and others was vacated and given a relisting date in the summer of 2020. It was fixed for trial, 11 months ago at PTPH, well before the genius at MOJ decided to slash sitting days.
The sorry tale is as follows:
The case progression officer from Southwark Crown Court emailed on 4th September asking all parties to confirm that the matter was ready for trial. There was no indication that there was a listing problem.
On 10th September, out of the blue, all parties were notified that the case was going to be listed for mention that Friday, i.e. Friday 13th September, with the surprising news that the court was not able to accommodate trial. There was no Judge. It would have to be re-fixed. The case came before HHJ Taylor. The court had tried everything, later start date, different court centres, swapping of cases. Still no judge available.
Given the complexity of the trial, the only feasible date so as to ensure continuity was 2nd June 2020. Devasting for all concerned. This was alleged professional crime, high value cars stolen to order. Six defendants, two prosecutors, six defence barristers, numerous witnesses, multiple complainants all let down.
IS THE MOJ SERIOUS WHEN IT SAYS THAT THIS IS AN EFFICIENCY SAVING?
This is nothing other than an appalling waste of time, money and resources. It is up and down the country.
We all know that as soon as this situation occurs the court tries to accommodate but its administrative capabilities are already at bursting point. Decisions are having to be made to prioritise. Bail cases may be viewed as less important than those where defendants are remanded or there are vulnerable complainants. On that last point I am saddened to report that rape trials in parts of the country are presently being listed well into next year, so it does not appear as if there is any true prioritisation. This is a sticking plaster over a suppurating wound.
Pressure of reduced sitting days means something else in the system is having to give.
If a court as significant and illustrious as Southwark cannot, despite all herculean efforts accommodate such a trial then who can and what is going on?
- Is MOJ really serious about victims of crime?
- Why is MOJ so reluctant to allow for an increase in sitting days?
- Why does MOJ think it is cost effective to leave courts sitting empty?
- Why is MOJ reluctant for a Recorder of the Crown Court to be brought in to support the court?
- Why can there not be any flexibility to help the Judges run their court centres?
- Why are vulnerable witness cases being pushed further down the line?
- Why can common sense not be applied?
There is no saving of money for a case that is going to be due to be heard in the Crown Court in September 2019 as opposed to July 2020. It is the same case, same witnesses, same counsel, one judge and one jury. So, if the same costs are attributable to a case, where are the savings?
THERE IS NO BACKLOG, ITS JUST IN YOUR IMAGINATION – THE FIGURES:
As at 31st March 2019, the following figures were published by way of outstanding cases at Crown Court Centres. These are just a few examples. The figures are provided the from Justice Statistics Analytical Services division at the Ministry of Justice.
I am addressing those described as “outstanding dashboard”, defined in the glossary as:
“a case that is yet to be disposed of or is still open on a specific date (last day of the rolling day)”
i.e. the backlog as we know it.
SNARESBROOK: 1,106 cases outstanding. Those figures are made up as, 213 violence cases, 55 sexual cases, 60 robbery cases, 87 theft offences (value not defined), 29 criminal damage and arson cases, 83 possession of weapons cases, 37 public order offences, 147 miscellaneous crimes against society, 28 Fraud offences, 5 summary non motoring, 147 committals for sentence, 34 appeals, 36 yet to be classified.
ISLEWORTH: 830 cases outstanding:140 violence cases, 39 sexual offences, 31 robbery cases, 57 theft cases,18 criminal damage and arson cases, 84 drug offences, 49 possession of weapons cases, 24 public order cases, 82 miscellaneous, 32 Fraud offences, 1 summary non driving offence, 175 committals for sentence, 58 appeals, 40 not yet classified.
So who had to speak to the complainants in the 71 outstanding cases regarding possession of offensive weapons yet to be heard at Inner London Crown court or the 66 complainants of the outstanding sexual offences to be concluded at Teesside Crown court or even the complainants of the 103 outstanding sexual offences at Leeds Crown Court?
Just how was the delay explained away and of course don’t forget that this is just a snapshot of data because even with the artificial suppression of and manipulation of numbers, crime is still being committed, not every crime can be disposed of by some out of court disposal.
THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR THE DELAYS IN TRYING THESE CASES:
The inflexibility surrounding reduced sitting days has to end.
Those in charge of this farce should look at the devastating consequences that are easily quantifiable:
Complainants waiting longer, expectation of early trial dates as promised dashed, witnesses who have arranged days away from work inconvenienced, counsel left unable to recover the lost court days, never mind the drawn-out legal process, the stress of proceedings eating into a victim or soon to be proved innocent defendant’s daily life.
Justice delayed is justice denied.
The system is not reacting at all, never mind faster and for what exactly. It is good to know that the switching off of the light bulbs is riding rough shod over the above. We have to run courts in a timely and efficient manner. It is a difficult process, but crime is not committed in a uniform way. We do not have set units of crime per week. No matter how the statistics are massaged, crime will fluctuate, and courts need to sit to hear cases. This is not the epoch of Dickens we have no room for the Jarndyce v Jarndyce approach.
We are keeping a careful watch on the above situation and we already have much for next week’s message. Please email in with any cases that you feel we should be aware of.
FEE MEETINGS – MOJ:
This week there was the meeting of the Criminal Legal Aid Review Defence Practitioner Advisory Panel at the MOJ. It is attended by a large number of representatives from all areas of the profession. We were provided with an update as to the accelerated policy proposals, the timetable for future engagement and the next steps when considering the wider review which is due to report back Summer 2020.
I urge you to attend those meetings listed below. This is a repeat of information from the last message, but it is really important.
You have really maintained your engagement and it is vital that you are as informed about the review process as you possibly can be.
- 26th September, 5-7pm – Albion Chambers, Broad Street, Bristol;
- 27th September, 5-7pm – No.5 Chambers, Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham;
- 2nd October, 4:30-6:30pm – Winchester Combined Court, Winchester;
- 2nd October, 4:30-6:30pm – Cardiff Crown Court, Cathays Park, Cardiff;
The discussions will contribute to the evidence base for the Criminal Legal Aid Review and is an opportunity to give feedback and comments on the current fee schemes, how fairly they reflect work done, the sustainability of the proxies used, as well as general views and comments on criminal legal aid as a front line practitioner.
The working group is due to meet 1st October. Slightly delayed on the timetable but we have taken the view that we need to have all of the relevant personnel involved.
CRIMINAL LEGAL AID BILLING SEMINAR:
At 6pm on Wednesday 25th September, the Bar Council is holding a seminar on Criminal Legal Aid Billing. The panel includes criminal clerking expertise and a Legal Aid Agency senior case officer. Barristers and clerks and barristers who attend – in person or via video link – should receive valuable tips on how to claim the full fee you are entitled to and avoid LAA rejects. .
FILM OF THE WEEK:
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest…………. “medication time”!
Onwards and upwardsView more news