No, this is not about legal aid cuts, strikes or ballots. This a snapshot, a snapshot of the criminal justice system as it exists in July 2015. And it is one ugly picture.
Sitting around the robing room table today the hot topic of discussion was not referral fees. It was adjournments. Not lawyers eagerly in pursuit of adjournments, but lawyers desperate to avoid them. It proved, however, impossible.
One trial had been listed on Monday. The impact of decisions taken by counsel locally meant that there was no one available to accept the defence case as a returned trial. The case had been adjourned to the following day, Tuesday (and I pause there to have a little word about strikes, if I may, with the observation “look how quickly it bites” and invite everyone to take heart from that).
So Tuesday had come around, defence counsel was now available and the trial was all ready to go. Save for the fact that it was not. The court did not have sufficient jurors. The summoning of jurors is a fine balance, you do not want too many idly hanging around but then you do not want to adjourn trials because there are not enough. So I suppose one trial, adjourned from one day to another is forgivable. As a bit of a one off.
But not as one of five trials to be adjourned that day, for that same reason. Five trials that were adjourned because the courts are saving money by not arranging for sufficient jurors. This is not an isolated incident. Counsel knows that this happens all the time.
At least this one trial, the one adjourned from Monday to Tuesday was adjourned until Wednesday for them to start. And come Wednesday morning they had jurors. Ten of them. Which is a few jurors short of a picnic, sorry, a jury panel. So it still had not started. The participants in the trial were having to wait for a jury that was involved in their deliberations to return so the jurors could be recycled. Which is fair enough…..except that trial was in its third week, so jurors were going to have to be retained beyond their expected period to make up the shortfall.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, another trial in the same building was waiting to go ahead. This was a case with the defendant in custody. There was a small snag…..they only had ten jurors available to them. The same jurors. As my American cousins would say “you do the math”.
I have no idea, as I write this, whether those trials got on.
All this time one of my former pupils was painting his shed. “What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” I hear you cry. And the answer is nothing. Nothing to do with eggs. But the reason he was painting his garden shed was because his trial had been pulled through lack of court time in a different court centre on the circuit.
Again, listing is not an exact science. Occasionally cases are overloaded in the list to make sure that courts do not sit idle. It is a gamble, sometimes there are losers. So the shed has a touch of “it does what it says on the tin” and I should stop my moaning.
Just one small niggle though. This was the fourth time this trial had been adjourned. The second time it had been adjourned through lack of court time. To lose one trial slot is unfortunate, to lose two is positively careless. Particularly careless when the particular court centre has four courtrooms sitting empty.
This is not the responsibility or fault of a listing officer or a judge. But this is the reality of life within the CJS. Yesterday I gave a speech to solicitors in Manchester where I said this
Whilst I cannot speak of what motivates everyone, I believe that many have reached the point of taking action because they see that the cuts and other associated changes threaten not only their livelihoods but also the provision of a proper criminal justice system. And when I say proper I don’t just mean functioning, or adequate, I mean one that offers protections to the vulnerable, that safely convicts the guilty, a criminal justice system that is fair to all.
We have never been further from the system functioning adequately. Years of underfunding in the court estate, in the system, is now slowing and destroying the system to the extent that victims, witnesses and defendants wait endlessly for justice. And despite the delays, nothing is ready when it should be. This is not a two tier justice system, at least not a two tier criminal justice system. It is one tier, and it is the basement. A mouldy, damp basement. With a broken little skylight. And a rusty bike in the corner, behind some empty tins of paint.
This needs the urgent attention of everybody. The press need to see what is happening. The CBA, the Bar Council, the Judiciary, the CLSA, the LCCSA and the Law Society need to be shouting about it. It is a such a disgrace the RSPB and ABBA should get involved too! I don’t care who, but this needs shouting about until such time as Mr Gove sees that the basic system is failing. And puts it right.