Amidst the frenzy of the “Deal or No Deal” dilemma for the Criminal Bar I confess I lost sight of just how much of a mess the criminal justice system is in. Issues concerning remuneration are undoubtedly having a massive impact. Standards are plummeting in the advocacy skills on display in the Crown Court. Virtually every advocate you speak to has a plan B, an escape route. The uncertain future, where the only certainty is insufficient remuneration, is decreasing the numbers applying for pupillage to undertake criminal work. I see many advocates undertaking cases beyond their experience (a vital ally to latent ability) due to commercial pressures. That should not be read as a criticism of solicitor advocates, I detect similar problems at the Bar as well.
However the mess I speak of is not to do with fees, advocacy skills or talent drain. The whole system is in meltdown. Let us first of all take the courts themselves. Take a walk around your local Crown Court. Look at the Xhibit screens. Count how many do not work. They hang on the walls like a blank portrait of poverty. In recent times I conducted a trial where we moved between four courtrooms in a building of ten trying to find videolink and playback equipment that would work. The court estate is like Pompeii after the volcano. Preserved intact but not a living, vibrant environment.
One of my local court centres is like a deserted city. It has fifteen courtrooms available to hear criminal cases. Often less than ten them are being utilised for this purpose. Sometimes they are occupied by a coroners case, more often than not they are big, empty hangars of nothing. The truly bizarre thing is that this court centre found money in its budget in recent years to expand the number of courtrooms it had and refurbish others. One of the refurbished courts has never, yes that is correct, NEVER hosted a case of any kind. The last time I stepped inside it the Royal Coat of Arms stared out over a pile of moribund computer monitors.
All of this has an impact on the administration of justice. Whilst courtrooms sit empty the list of unheard cases piles ever higher. Want to fix a sex case of more than four days? That will be next year. A custody time limit case? Squeezed in to a single potential date irrespective of availability. Happen to be charged with an offence not involving a vulnerable witness and you are on bail? Well just take a seat and we will get to you eventually.
In one of my regular haunts I have had the misfortune of having three consecutive trials pulled the day before due to lack of court time. Each time there has been an empty courtroom on the day my trial was fixed. I am told that the court are simply not allowed to deploy a Recorder to hear the case due to cuts in the number of sitting days. In other words, there is not the money to provide for the efficient and proper disposal of cases.
Now pulling those cases has a personal impact on me. No court, no fees. Sadly I do not even hold the record with my three consecutive trials. One of my colleagues has had four consecutive trials pulled at the last moment in the same court. As an aside, just imagine I was employed by the state to conduct the advocacy in those cases. I would have spent days being a very expensive, bewigged executive desk toy. As it was I spent the days at home, walking the dog or doing bits and pieces of work.
However, I complain not about the fact my colleague and I have been stranded on an island of mention and fixes. Each of those cases had a defendant awaiting their fate. Each of those cases had a victim seeking justice. Each had witnesses ready to perform their civic duty. Each of them approached the anniversary of the offence. Each of them has gone into the long grass being kept company by the cuts to the AGFS.
And then you have days when the ability to confer with your client in the cells is severely curtailed by staffing issues in the custody area. That is if they have brought the defendant. Or even the right defendant. The problems with interpreters are well known, well documented and routinely ignored.
It is not just the courts. The service of papers regularly takes place two weeks after the date ordered. That means you are lucky to get a conference prior to PCMH. Judges used to raise hell if there was not a defence statement by PCMH. Now they just shrug their shoulders, accepting of the fact that the papers have only just arrived. It seems most of the time these days that I do not have any time to fight for justice in the cases I conduct, I am too busy fighting fires.
I am afraid I have no answers. I am depressed that the decrepit state of the criminal justice system seems to be passing everyone by. Google design a car without a driver and it is all over the news yet the rule of law being driven over a cliff passes by with barely a mention. VHCCs, dual contracts, cuts, Jeffrey, Leveson, judicial review – all of them mean nothing when we sit back and allow the system to crumble.
This is a recipe that contains cream. We have two choices. Whip it or it will go sour. I know which I choose.