You’ve Been Shamed

From time to time I have shared with you the minor disasters and irritations of my professional life. This has been cheaper than therapy. Probably not as effective, but cheaper. And I hope that my moans and gripes have illustrated to the uninitiated that the Criminal Justice System operates about as effectively as Natalie Bennet when she is full of a cold. 

The daily occurrences of incompetence, ineptitude and inadequacy are such features of, well, daily life that I am now letting them pass by without comment. So I have neglected to tell you about the Prison Officer who appeared over the videolink and candidly announced “We will probably run late with the links today, we are short of staff. Don’t blame me, blame the Government.”  Which was fair enough. 

On the subject of videolinks, I was remiss in not telling you of the videolink which commenced with the clerk asking for the defendant to be brought into the booth. So we awaited his arrival. And waited. And waited. A good ten minutes. Counsel, court staff and Judge, looking at a TV screen showing a chair in front of a curtain. Eventually an officer re-entered the booth. 

“There is a delay,” she announced. Which came as no shock to those of us who had been sitting there for the aforementioned ten minutes. 

“We can’t find him.” Which did come as a surprise to everyone as he was in prison, and as a particular surprise to defence counsel who had spoken to him moments earlier in the conference booth. 

Nor did I tell you about the case that was listed for videolink where the prison mistakenly put the defendant on the van instead. And the cells sent him back to prison because his PCMH was listed by videolink. Which he did not get back to the prison in time for.  On the bright side, at least they knew where he was. Most of the time. 

I shouldn’t just pick on custody cases and videolinks. There was the interpreter who had to be prompted to interpret. Every time. Or the interpreter that refused to assist in communicating with the defendant outside of court. Even when invited to by the Judge. 

But I haven’t mentioned any of these because they have become such the norm of life in the courts that they barely register. All of the instances mentioned above have happened in the last two weeks. Including two Bank Holidays. And a day out of court. So that was seven days worth of cock-ups at court. I should mention that I have only picked the best ones. 

One case has been such a catalogue of errors that I would not know where to even begin. That is a whole blog on its own. If I can ever bring myself to tell you about it. 

I have been moved to put pen to paper once more…..or fingers to iPad….no, that sounds wrong. I have been moved to write (that’s better) about these cock-ups again because my two week trial, that was listed for Monday 13th April in August of last year has been pulled from the list on the Friday before. Despite the fact that I know another trial, listed for at least a week and due to start on Monday as well, was resolved this week. So that’s two trials they could not accommodate. Actually make that four trials as I know of two others that have been pulled. Whilst three courtrooms sit empty in the building. 

It’s alright though. The offences only date back to 2009. It is only the second trial date. There are only six complainants waiting for their cases to be tried. (I am leaving to one side the dirty great big hole in my diary, although if any of you solicitors out there have any easy, private payers just knocking around over the next fortnight, you know where to find me….)

So the cock-ups are funny. Funny in a “if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry” kind of way. But they are symptomatic of a system that is just not working. It isn’t at breaking point. It’s broken. 

There has been lots of talk in the last couple of years of excellence versus competence. Of quality versus efficiency. Right now, I’d settle for “barely functioning”. It would represent a step forward. 

9 thoughts on “You’ve Been Shamed

  1. polruan

    It is conceivable that the poor interpreter might have taken offence at two rather self-important lawyers, both of whom were being fulsomely paid to ensure compliance with the relevant Rules, ordering her or him to work for nothing, in breach of contract, and in a context that is not permitted under the terms of HMCTS’s (piss-poor) contract with Crapita. Or s/he might simply have taken umbrage at being treated as a mere object (as incontrovertibly demonstrated by Jaime’s use of the relative pronoun “that”). Treating the staff as dirt is characteristic of a particular breed of lawyer (the nasty, resentful kind). It is always counterproductive. Lawyers who deign to treat interpreters as fellow professionals are invariably more successful in persuading them to go beyond the call of duty. They also tend to be far better advocates.

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    1. Andrew Jebb

      Your suggestion that the lawyers were “fulsomely”paid betrays your complete ignorance of the AGFS system of payment to the Bar. When cases don’t go ahead, as Jaime has rightly pointed out in his reply to you below, the one group of people in the case who won’t be getting paid is the Bar, not the Court staff or the interpreters. Your sneer at “a particular breed” of lawyer is also completely unwarranted, either as a direct attack on Jaime, or more generally at those of us left dealing with criminal cases. We may find ourselves getting frustrated and down-spirited on a regular basis these days because of the lack of resources in the system and the consequent cock-ups but I am struggling to remember the last time I saw any member of the Bar “treating the staff as dirt” and you are claiming that certain members of the Bar are in the habit of acting that way. Whoever you are, behind your anonymous login, you are utterly wrong about Jaime and the criminal Bar as a whole.

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  2. jaimerhamilton Post author

    Firstly my apologies for the tired use of grammar on a Friday night with my relative pronoun. It is indicative of poor literacy rather than some subconscious view of interpreters as objects. And it is rather the point that I am making that it is indicative of a failed system that strict adherence to rules and poor pay rates leads to a particularly vulnerable defendant being unassisted. And I can assure you that nobody was ordered to do anything but were politely requested, by an advocate that is the very embodiment of good grace and manners rather than some stereotypical nasty and resentful lawyer and who then demonstrated their self-importance by going above and beyond their call of duty by helping the police officer to try to progress the case next time. All for no remuneration whatsoever because, unlike other professionals involved that day, the advocate will receive the fulsome re numeration of exactly £0 because the strict adherence to rules and contract terms led to the case being adjourned. Which is again a fault of the system, not the people who work within it.

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  3. utterbarrister

    I don’t know if Polruan is an interpreter, or some other with some knowledge of our creaking CJS, but it is quite depressing that someone who clearly has some insight into part of the system, who understands the appalling nightmare that is the HMCTS intepreter farrago, knows soooo little about the other side. An immediate leap to “fulsome renumeration”, an assumption that lawyers / judges treat interpreters and staff like dirt – how very wrong you are. Day in day out, despite being treated as the very bottom of the food chain in court – “victims” or rather “complainants”, other witnesses, jurors, court staff – they will all be accommodated – often with some sort of catering, with car parking spaces, with consideration as to their convenience. Police officers will have their own room at court, will not be subjected to anal cavity searches, much as the Bar will be, even if they’re coming in and out of the same court for the last 6 months on the world’s most dull case. Judges will ask the jury, the witness, the interpreter, the court staff – is it ok if we sit early today, thru lunch tomorrow, a bit late the day after – not Counsel – no we just are assumed to be there at beck and call.

    I echo everything Jaime has just said. Too many instances of appalling incompetence and inefficiency to mention. One example from yesterday – 30-odd handed PCMH yesterday at a court that shall remain nameless (Suffice to say it’s by the Thames, HMS Belfast, and sounds a bit like the Ewing ranch in Dallas). Listed at 10:30, get on at 11:00. My hero has been put in the second trial of four – June 2016 (which clashes with something else in Croydon – that’s how screwed lists have become). For some unknown reason the rather harpy-like Court Clerk – not enjoying her day at court – is snapping at all counsel left right and centre – can counsel get your clients into court – new function among our many – even though there are two court clerks and an usher, it is somehow our role to corral attendance… But she has decided to have trial 3 defendants, trial 4 defendants, trial 1 defendants then trial 2 defendants. So without any reference to me or others in our tranche, we’re put to the back of the queue. We all sit thru a litany of excuses why the CPS haven’t done this, not served enough bundles, not paginated etc, then why some teams have not yet (months down the line) served a Defence Statement…

    When it is raised very courteously with her, at the outset why is it taking so long to start and then why are we being dealt with 4th not 2nd – her response was indicative – “what are you worried about, you’re all getting paid nicely for this”!

    FFS – this is an experienced court clerk, who doesn’t realise that for our 5 minutes on our feet, that have required hours and hours of prep, travel to court, liaison with the Crown, with Co-Ds, with Defendant, a total hearing time of almost 2 hours – we get the total fulsome remuneration of £0. Paid nicely? Don’t think so.

    But nonetheless, we are unfailingly polite and courteous, unlike the Court Clerk who IS being paid to stand up and read out an indictment a number of times.

    Do wish people would get their facts straight and not talk from a state of ignorance!

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  4. thebungblog

    Reblogged this on Do Right, Fear No One and commented:
    How depressing is the comment from the anonymous Polruan? I know of many interpreters who will go the extra mile, but also of a few who insist on sticking to the rules, often to the prejudice of complainants as well as defendants. And they are paid for every hearing

    If counsel went on any kind of work to rule, we all know what directions to judges would come down from the senior judiciary.

    In the meantime, just exactly what are Crown Court Judges and rep organisations doing about this? Let’s have another consultation of the membership, if the MoJ will allow us of course.

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  5. Jo Martin

    I was tempted to tweet for the first time about problems with the CJS but the character count would be woefully inadequate. Thank you for your blog. May I add my experience from a typical day yesterday…

    A defendant – 17 – with a psychiatric history – was due to be sentenced. This is the second listing for sentence. Sentence had to be adjourned again. Why? Because whilst everyone agreed – court, defence and LAA – that a psychiatric report was necessary for sentence, the LAA will not pay reasonable fees to the psychiatrist to write a report. The BMA has told the psychiatrist that the correct rate is £150 per hour; the LAA will pay £108 per hour (following the reduction in experts fees last year). The LAA will not budge. The upshot? The judge has said it will now commission the report rather than the defence and will pay the £150 per hour requested. So rather than pay the extra £150-200 the LAA’s obdurateness has meant three wasted court hearings with the associated costs. What did the LAA think was going to happen? I would add I was prosecuting and after the hearing was adjourned for the third time I spoke to the elderly victim of the robbery who had come to court to get some sort of closure. He was shocked and saddened at the delay. I had to explain to him that the delay of 11 months since he was robbed was as nothing to the delay in so many other cases in the CJS at the moment…..

    ….And sure enough, as if to prove the point, when I finished in court for the day, like Jaime, I was contacted by my clerks to tell me that my serious sexual assault case due to start on Monday had been removed from the list. The allegations were first made to the police in June 2013, the case first came to court in September 2014, and the trial date fixed for Monday at that first hearing. The complainants, defendant and lawyers are all ready and prepared. One complainant was due to give evidence over a very expensive video link to Australia because since the complaint she has tried to get on with her life. Why has it been taken out of the list? Because the court could not find a sex ticketed judge to sit.

    Something has gone seriously wrong. And it is clear it is only going to get worse. The government departments who are meant to empower the criminal justice system are being cut to the bone – the CPS, the LAA, HMCTS. The delays that inevitably flow from those cuts means justice cannot be done – not for the defendants, nor for the victims (no matter how hard individuals – whether the independent bar, small firms of solicitors and employees of some government departments – try to keep the show on the road).

    This topic – the decimation of the criminal justice system and the consequential loss of justice itself within the system – has spectacularly failed to raise it’s head in any discussions in the run up to this election. Does justice not matter?

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  6. polruan

    I’m not an interpreter, as it happens, but I had considerable sympathy for the interpreter in this account. S/he will not have been paid anything either, not even her/his travel costs (rather like defence counsel), will have been mucked around something rotten, and then found her/himself being asked to carry on working for nothing.

    But all we ever hear about from Jaime is how hard done by HE is.

    I was undoubtedly over-harsh in my response, as I agree with almost everything I read here (the post on the mad courts charge was a masterpiece), but think that our Jaime sometimes does himself no favours by lashing out all around (damning everyone and everything in the CJS except heroic advocates like himself whom he asks us to believe are the only bastion against the barbarian invasion, and sod the rest).

    His behaviour actually reminds me of nothing better than Cameron’s on Europe (I know Jaime’ll just love the comparison!). Go in and offend everyone, especially his natural allies, demonstrate contempt for the whole system, and then get all upset when they turn round and tell him to buzz off. It just doesn’t work. Better build alliances, make common cause, and take other stakeholders along with you. Just p*****g everyone off by being generally bolshie rarely helps win friends and influence people.

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    1. jaimerhamilton Post author

      Thanks for your comment. This is, in the main, a personalised perspective on the Criminal Justice System. I am an advocate so clearly there is a slant towards the trials and tribulations of being an advocate within the system.

      Sometimes these insights will illuminate some wider point, other times it narrows my focus. Given the current situation within the CJS these insights will often be about my experiences of things going wrong. I hope they never venture into the territory of championing me being wonderful.

      There is, from time to time, a more reasoned critique of certain situations alongside a blog about my holidays. However it is far more diary than textbook. No matter what the topic I normally attempt to approach it with humour. It is always a truthful picture.

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    2. jaimerhamilton Post author

      One further thing, to enlighten me as to the plight of others within the CJS, you have said that the interpreter gets paid nothing. I am shocked by this. Can you tell me where I find confirmation of the fact that there is no remuneration for an interpreter who attends court for a booked hearing, the hearing takes place (albeit to simply adjourn that hearing to another day) and they are at court, including waiting time, for the period that they were booked for? That is every bit as scandalous as the fact that defence counsel does not get paid either and would gladly dedicate an entire blog to that subject.

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