‘Monday’ Message 29.06.21

Seven-year planning, temporary solutions are no solutions at all:

I have previously said we need a five-year plan for the criminal justice system but the term just increased. We need a seven-year plan. The public deserves, as a bare minimum, a plan that is fit not just for the remaining lifetime of this Parliament but the one after this. We need to plan now for sufficient court buildings, staff, judiciary and legal professionals to deal with inevitable significant increases both in charging and to the number of cases travelling through the Crown Courts.  A reactive approach will simply continue to fail all the complainants, defendants, witnesses and criminal practitioners who are victimised by the delays imposed on cases as they are compelled to travel through a dysfunctional justice system starved of end-to-end, strategic investment.

The Rape Review, which deals with just one aspect of criminal behaviour, has made a commitment to bring prosecution levels back to 2015 levels by the end of this Parliament. That would require change by May 2024, at the latest, unless a general election is triggered sooner. We need plans now to make systemic improvement over, at least, another four years beyond the next election as we know, from MOJ data, that the mean average time for offence to completion of an allegation of adult rape is over 1,000 days meaning we need a substantial reduction in this timeline as soon as possible if sexual offence allegations are not to be backing up for years by 2024.

Evidence of the degradation of the criminal justice system over the last seven years through deliberate underfunding can be found in the MOJ’s own figures.  Data was published last week measuring court timeliness and performance over the past five successive quarters which references back to 2014. This is the first time in 15 months that the public has been able to see figures normally published every quarter. The mean average time from allegation to completion for all criminal cases is now 550 days. This relates to a total of 25,033 defendants whose cases completed in the Crown Court during the first quarter of 2021 ending 31st March. By comparison, the mean average time for cases that completed in the Crown Court during the first quarter of 2014 – the earliest available data published in last week’s figures – was 413 days involving 34,262 defendants whose cases had completed during that quarter. In other words, the Crown Court had to deal with 27% fewer defendants in cases completing during the first quarter of this year, compared to seven years ago, yet those defendants, on average, had to wait a third longer than they would have done back in 2014.

For at least the last five years, successive Governments have talked about making the courts more “efficient” and poured billions of pounds into “court modernisation” programmes yet seven years of closures have meant that, despite the markedly fewer cases entering the system, grotesque inefficiencies have remained for complainant and defendant alike. However, some of the most telling delays occur before a criminal case gets anywhere near court. The mean average time from allegation to charge was 243 days in q1 2014 but has increased to 302 days in q1 2021, for those cases that completed during the period from January to March. These latest delays have little to do with Covid as if those same defendants had to wait an average 550 days for their case to travel through the system this in-built delay was already present before Covid took hold. Such hesitation in charging is based on police and CPS being starved of resources since 2010. Even now, we are only beginning to see funding restored to police and police numbers edging their way back to 2014/15 levels.

In criminal justice we always see the same mistakes occur time and again. Just as court closures and closed courtrooms over recent years have guaranteed appalling delays to cases travelling through the system and untold agony to those whose lives were left in limbo, we now experience a sense of déjà vu when we read the words of HMCTS on Sunday: “Nightingale courts in Birmingham, Hull, Lancaster, Middlesbrough and Stafford will be closing at the end of June 2021. All of our Nightingale courts are set up on a temporary basis to provide additional courtroom capacity and meet local operational needs. We will consider replacement venues in locations where an operational need remains.” What constitutes operational need when there remain chronic problems of worsening delays has not been clarified. Such a patchwork of temporary fixes provides an emphatic reminder of a system which will remain unfit for purpose until the mindset changes. Unless it begins to pay proper regard to fundamental obligations owed to citizens trapped in years of uncertainty, Government will continue to impede, rather than enhance, access to justice.

On a more positive note, we can learn lessons from the experience of the Wales and Chester circuit where, following close collaboration between judiciary, bar and regional HMCTS staff since the beginning of the pandemic, the circuit has brought the backlog down to pre-Covid levels. Other regions would do well to focus on achieving similar degrees of co-operation if we are collectively to address backlogs and increasing delays although court users and practitioners can only do so much when there are no longer enough individuals in certain areas to deal with the work. We cannot operate efficiently with our legs in shackles due to a system deprived of any long-term strategic planning. If public trust and confidence in our justice system is to be restored, we need a framework which ensures the timely resolution of criminal cases. The public cannot cope with another seven years of degradation.

Nominations for 2021 Bar Pro Bono Awards:

Nominations for this year’s Bar Pro Bono Awards are now open! If you know someone who has dedicated their time to others and deserves to be celebrated, please nominate them by 12th September, there are many categories available! Find out more here

Wellbeing Research Project:

The University of Cambridge has invited CBA Members’ to assist with a research study on ‘The role of chambers as a structural attribute of self-employed practice in supporting self-employed barristers’ emotional labour’.

The questionnaire takes approximately 15 minutes to complete and can be accessed here

Vice Chair Nominations:

We are delighted to announce two candidates were successfully nominated! The candidates names and their ‘manifestos’ together with the election launch, will open by email announcement at 16:00 on Friday 2nd July.

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