One Wheel on My Waggon

“Tell me why, I don’t like Mondays?” implored Bob Geldof and his rats.

The unlikely answer is because he and the rats were barristers from Boomtown Chambers. They had come to hate Mondays because they knew that Mondays were the embodiment of the problems that beset the criminal justice system.

I know how they feel. Recent Mondays have not been kind to me. Not that how my Mondays pan out really matters in the grand scheme of things. The problem is that recent Mondays have been rather unkind to victims, witnesses and defendants. I would go so far as to say they have been cruel to (and I am now going to use a phrase so beloved by our politicians) ordinary, decent people. 

Let us make like Marty McFly and do a little time travel. Hop aboard the Delorean that is my diary for the last month. The first Monday of the month had me scheduled to prosecute a drug trial. This is a little humblebrag, this was not a couple of street deals, this was a delivery of wholesale amounts of drugs. There was a hiccup in the week before the trial when it turned out my opponent was over running in his current trial and we all agreed that the trial could go back a day to the Tuesday. The Court demanded that the case be listed before a Judge for this application so along we all trooped for the Judge and the Listing Officer to confer and announce that the Court could accommodate the case if it was pushed back by a day. 

So the calendar ticked round to Monday. 5pm on Monday to be precise. That was when the call came – case pulled from the list for lack of court time. 

The call was so late that the CPS were not able to react to it. All the officers were at court the following day, including one officer that had travelled from London. So I had quite an audience to watch me mention the case and refix the trial for March 2017. 

“Hush your moaning,” I hear you say, “this is one of life’s little blows. Roll with the punches.”

The following Monday found me boarding a train at an hour which usually finds me in bed. I rattled through some spectacular English scenery. I rolled into a different city, grateful for the fact that my bag contained only iPads and laptops rather than all the files usually needed for a three week fraud. Later in the day I reversed my journey having popped into court for a grand total of about five minutes. Our Judge was part heard with his trial from the previous week for the whole of the Monday. And, so it turned out, quite a bit of the Tuesday too. 

This one is, I admit, a personal moan. This does not impact on ordinary, decent people just odd, indecent people like me. As every barrister will know no jury sworn on the Monday meant no significant fee paid for the day. In fact my fee did not cover my train fare. 

As it happened that trial went short for other reasons. Fear not, dear reader, I had a trial in my diary for the next Monday so the mortgage was still going to be paid. Can you see what is coming? My trial on the Monday did not happen. Listing pulled it on the Friday evening. Which was a bit of a sickener for me, but probably even worse for the witness who was due to travel to court in the North West from the South East coast. 

It would, would it not, be incredible bad luck for a fourth Monday on the trot to go wrong? So this Monday was to see me once again in a far flung court to conduct a trial. I was going to be accompanied by two other members of my chambers on a bit of a chambers outing to co-defend. And I suppose that, at least, made the job of the Listing Officer a tad easier on the Friday evening, as he only had one set of chambers to call and say that the trial had been put back by a day. 

So yesterday saw three members of my chambers, all self-employed people, sitting idle. Being idle allowed the three of us plenty of time to share our thoughts via text and email when our clerk was told that the case was not going to be heard on Tuesday either and we had now been pushed back to the Wednesday. So the three of us are at a loose end today too, like a barristerial version of Last of the Summer Wine. 

This is not just a case of lunaediesophobia. Cases get pulled every day of the week. And it isn’t just me. The third Monday in this little trot of bad luck saw four trials pulled in the same court centre. So what is causing this?

On one of the rare recent days when I actually went to court and did a case I found myself in a room in the court building. In that room was one of those trolley things that people use to transport great piles of files and boxes into the building. The trolley had a sign attached to it that read “Do Not Use. Flat Tyre.” Underneath the prohibition on use was the fact that the fault had been reported to the necessary authorities……in October 2015. And there it was, tyre still flat and not fit for its intended use. 

But perfect as a metaphor for the criminal justice system. We are running on a flat tyre. 

Due to my recent experiences of cases being delayed, pulled or evaporating I have been keeping a keener eye on the lists of recent times. And I have noticed a plethora of lists that look like this….

….or this……


This is replicated across the nation. I went through the lists for court centres that I know. On Monday mornings you will see Court Centres that have eight courtrooms are only using three of them. Buildings that could accommodate ten Judges have five sitting. Large cities will have five courtrooms occupied and nine sitting vacant, whilst having three floating trials. 

This is not a case for closing these buildings. The fact is that we have more than enough work to fill them and perhaps reduce the delay from offence to trial that can often be two years. The answer lies not in allowing defendants to plead to speeding cases online, that is not going to allow the sex case to be heard any earlier. It is not the answer to allow vulnerable victims to be cross-examined early in the proceedings, that is just going to clog up more courtrooms. 

The answer is more Judges. The problem lies in the fact that Courts suffer a lack of full time Judges and are not allowed to fill the gaps by utilising Recorders (part time Judges) with sufficient advanced planning. Judges have told me in open court that the reason why cases are not being reached is because, as is shown in the list for “Court 1” above, a Recorder has not been allocated. What is happening is that an email will wing its way around potential Recorders with only a few days of notice. So often the email will be seeking Recorders to sit a whole week, or two weeks or even three weeks, with less than a week’s notice. It is no surprise when there are no takers. One would expect Recorders to be amongst the busier members of the professions. And their diaries only collapse at the last minute, when their trial is pulled because no one else has answered the call to sit at such short notice. 

I would hazard a guess that every senior criminal judge knows that the delays in the CJS are nothing short of a scandal. I would like to think that they know they have the accommodation capacity to deal with more cases. I am confident that they know with the deployment of more part time Judges more trials could start every single Monday of every single month. Instead of banging the drum for pleading guilty when we do not know the nature of the evidence, the senior judiciary should be looking at the evidence of the lists and banging the drum for more resources that would allow better forward planning. When one cannot get a case into the courtroom, it is nothing short of embarrassing to see the championing of a mobile video link van. 

Like the trolley with the flat tyre that was reported nearly a year ago, nothing will happen unless someone takes responsibility for change. That is not something I can do, it is not something the CBA can do. It is something only achievable by those who can use their independence from humdrum politics to make the case that the system is failing society. It takes the people at the very top to be honest about the problems we face and to be realistic about the solutions. It takes advocacy on behalf of a system that is central to our society, advocacy which is conducted without fear or favour. Advocacy that is conducted by those who are entrusted with the privilege of ensuring that justice is done within our courtrooms.  

4 thoughts on “One Wheel on My Waggon

  1. polruan

    Another (albeit partial) solution to the overload on Crown Courts would be to enact the provision already included in CJA 2003 and enable magistrates’ courts (including DJ(MC)s and justices) to deal with matters that could attract a custodial sentence of up to 12 months, many of which really do not need to clog up the Crown Court lists. Magistrates are usually less inclined to simply lock up offenders than professional (especially part-time) judges, and more creative in envisaging restorative solutions etc., so this would make sense on several levels, not just by removing much low level crime from automatic jury trial, but potentially making better use of community punishment and ensuring that custody is not used as a default setting (which then prevents offenders in overcrowded jails even getting access to drug rehab or other rehabilitative treatments because of excess demand within those establishments).

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    1. jaimerhamilton Post author

      I once went to a lecture by Professor Zander and he had done research into the number of committal for sentences that result in non-custodial sentences and it was quite a high percentage. So cases where magistrates would definitely send to custody and for longer than their powers allow, a professional Judge did not.

      Not saying whether this is actually the case or not.

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      1. polruan

        The research carried out also shows that this is often as a result of local “directives” from the senior judiciary (e.g. they want all cycle thefts or mobile phone thefts sent up, as a result of prevalence in a particular setting – university cities for example, with students being set upon, or “steaming” cases in Outlet centres), and there is actually nothing to suggest that a lay bench would have treated them any differently.

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  2. utterbarrister

    Excellent article as ever Jaime. And certainly do not think that the answer to chronic underfunding and a chronically (and acutely) creaking system is to screw over the defendants more and more by allowing Mags Court to deal with even more offenders. Back to the issue of yes maybe only 12 month sentence but could be good character issues etc. Trials are (eventually) fairer, juries are sounder than either lay benches or DJs (with respect) and as Jaime says, sentences are invariably more sensible. Had one Southwark judge, over a decade ago, getting quite arsey that we’d found our way to Southwark for a bladed article or off weap, or whatever, for trial, but resolved into a plea after legal argument. He asked me snarlingly what on earth my solicitors had been thinking electing trial at Crown Court. I fixed him with my best steely stare and said – you just gave my punter a sensible community order…. That’s why! He shut up thereafter.

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