Tag Archives: court

Sitting in the Dock of Delay´╗┐

Some of those who walk through the doors of a court building as defendants are criminals. I would suggest the vast majority of them have committed some offence at some time. Quite a few have contributed in some way to them being there that day, whether it is by committing the offence they are charged with or by committing some offence in the course of their conduct or their conduct otherwise contributing to them being there. 

A significant proportion of them, however, are innocent. A greater proportion of them are of previous good character and are there due to the one error they have made in their lives. It is an error that they will be punished for but not something that wiped the good they have done off the slate. They are young men, with anxious parents, who will never again in their lives raise a fist in anger. They are people who gave into temptation in a coincidence of circumstance that will never again collide to propel them through the doors of the Crown Court. They are drivers who face a judgement because their error, their error that has been committed by dozens of un-prosecuted drivers, has led to a serious consequence and police involvement.  And they are people who are guilty of no misdemeanour at all. 

Once convicted, these defendants will be punished. Once convicted they may be subject to piercing criticism of their conduct. And rightly so. But until such time as they are convicted, they remain just one component of the criminal justice system. 

Now I throw my hands in the air in frustration when I hear about “customer surveys” or “consumer feedback” when talking about court users. People do not choose to partake in the criminal justice system. So they are not consumers or customers yet they are fellow human beings. And as such they all deserve to be treated with respect and consideration. Witnesses, complainants, victims and defendants all deserve being treated as we would wish to be treated by others. 

Over time I have witnessed the criminal justice system trying to do much better when it comes to dealing with people. When I began my career I would go so far as to say that the system, and those professionals that operated within it, treated  every other actor with considerable disdain. Where we thought we acted with a degree of sang froid we were in fact being aloof and arrogant. We mistook disdain for detachment. Gradually things have improved with consideration being given to witnesses and their understandable needs. I am not suggesting that it is perfect but the system has worked to improve.

That improvement, however, has not been extended to defendants. So you have the situation where young men of previous good character stand in the dock in their suits on the day when their trial was due to be heard but has been cancelled at the last minute, and refixed nine months hence, to hear the Judge observe that at least no witnesses have attended because the case was pulled the night before. Some Judges will apologise to the defendants. Most do not. 

The fact is that the defendants’ attendance in those circumstances is otiose. They have probably already taken the week off work. They will already have waited a year with this case hanging over their heads. And the reason for the further delay to their case is not because they have exercised their right to deny the offence they are charged with. The further delay is because the courts are under resourced. 

For all the talk of Brandon Lewis announcing that the 28 day bail regime will bring about less delay and uncertainty for the arrested it is just talk. All it means is less people released on bail and more people just released pending further investigation. Like most Government initiatives it is all talk. Talk usually focused on making it sound like it is good for the victims of crime but it is just that. Talk. Talk that politicians hope appeals to voters but talk that is not backed by action to tackle the real problems that beset the justice system. 

Whilst the politicians fail to put our taxpayers money where their duplicitous mouth is, the system creaks on with inevitable delay. And as those delays impact upon all involved the very least we can do is treat everyone with consideration and dignity. Even those in the dock. 

Going Digital

I embrace technology like an American President with no heed to etiquette embraces Her Majesty. On occasion I embrace the wrong technology, like mini discs instead of MP3s or hard drive DVD players instead of iPads. When I have caught up I like to use technology, so Archbold is no longer carted around in my bag with its tissue paper pages but nestles happily in my iPad, alongside my sentencing guidelines and espisodes of Dr Who. I have a blog, Facebook, Twitter and even Tumblr. I draw the line at Snapchat, which may be a product of my suspicion of people who would want to send pictures that disappear. 

So I welcome the advent of DCS and PCU wifi. This is a huge step forward for the criminal justice system and is a laudable achievement. I reserve judgement on PTPHs until I experience them in all their glory. Yet, in theory, I raise a hypothetical three cheers for the use of technology in our courts. 

And there is the rub. I welcome it in theory. There will be teething problems. It is the responsibility of all to iron out these problems. I worry about being able to take the necessary equipment on prison visits into establishments which currently will not allow me to wear a watch. I wonder how people that do not embrace technology are going to cope.

My greatest fear is the existing infrastructure. The system relies upon technology and the Internet. What if this goes wrong? What are the chances of it going wrong? How frequently could it go wrong sufficiently to cause problems?

When the system is rolled out in all its glory, when it is fully implemented, paper will not exist. Statements, photographs and documents will whizz between Judge, jury and counsel with the same magic that Mike TeeVee whizzed through Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

Is the internet being “down” going to be the new burst pipes? I experience problems with my internet at home. From time to time it disappears and Mrs VFTN and I have to rely upon Victorian ways of passing the evening, like conversation. Is there a Plan B if the internet vanishes due to the provider or equipment failure? (In Court, not in the VFTN household).

Is this a problem worth worrying about? Experience tells us that we do have reason to worry. Past performance is no guarantee of future prosepcts for investments but they are a pretty good indicator for Government IT projects. And it is not a happy history. The familiar tale is an interesting combination of being over-budget and under-resourced at exactly the same time. 

I am currently going about my business in one of my regular haunts. Every morning I log my details on to the Xhibit system against the cases I am doing. This allows the court to know who is who and where they are. It expedites payment. It allows the public to look at screens adorning the building to find out what cases are in the courtroom and where the court are up to in the list.

For the last week or so the screen outside the courtroom has had a piece of paper sellotaped to the front of it. The paper displays which cases are in the list because the technology has gone wrong and we are having to make do. We have gone from paperless to papering over the faults.

Fans or otherwise of Alanis Morrisette will appreciate the irony of this irony. Digital working in the courts could be a wonderful thing. If it goes wrong there could be a lot of empty screens, blank faces and wasted days. 

A Brave New World

A Crown Court somewhere in England and Wales in the days after the Lord Chancellor has banned paper. The courts have gone digital. The case of Regina v Sinclair is called on. Her Honour Judge Anna Logg QC presides.

HHJ: Who prosecutes this case?

Counsel rises to his feet

Pros: I do, Your Honour.

HHJ: Why have you not signed in on Xhibit, Mr Sugar?

Pros: The computer was down in the robing room, Your Honour…..again. I should say that m’learned friend Mr Babbage defends.

HHJ: Very well. Mr Babbage, I understand that this is your pre-trial application to exclude evidence?

Def: Correct. I assume Your Honour received my skeleton argument?

HHJ: No, Mr Babbage, I have not received a skeleton.

Def: I emailed it to the Crown Court Office over a week ago, Your Honour.

HHJ: That will explain it. The Crown Court Office is the Bermuda Triangle of correspondence.

Pros: I emailed mine directly to Your Honour, I hope you received it.

HHJ: Yes I did, Mr Sugar, thank you…..

Mr Sugar swells with pride and nods a little condescendingly at Mr Babbage

HHJ: ….but I could not open the attachment. Apparently it was not a compatible format with the old Judicial laptop. So, Mr Babbage, perhaps you would like to direct me to the evidence objected to.

Def: Your Honour it is the evidence of the witness Alan Turing, served by NAE last month.

HHJ: Do you have a page number?

Def: Yes, Your Honour, it is page 73 of the deps.

HHJ: My papers only run to 69. Mr Sugar, can you supply me with a paper copy of the statement?

Pros: No.

HHJ: That is not very helpful Mr Sugar….

Pros: I don’t mean to be unhelpful, it’s just that there isn’t a paper copy. This file is entirely digital. So I don’t have one to just hand to you.

HHJ: (sounding exasperated) So how am I able to view this statement?

Pros: I can email it to Your Honour (counsel blushes) and this time it will be a PDF so there should be no comparability issues.

HHJ: Very well, Mr Sugar.

Counsel sits and begins to type at his laptop. Silence fills the courtroom. Time seems to stop.

HHJ: I thought email was meant to be a rapid form of communication, Mr Sugar…..

Pros: It is, it’s just that I can’t get on to the court wifi. Seems Your Honour’s courtroom is a blackspot…..

Babbage takes delight at being able to intervene

Def: My iPad is picking up the wifi from the coffee shop over the street so I have been able to email it to Your Honour.

Pros: (leaping to his feet and speaking urgently) STOP!

HHJ: (testily) Mr Sugar!! There is no problem with Mr Babbage assisting the court in this way…..

Pros: Its not that, Your Honour. The lights have gone out.

HHJ: Well Mr Sugar, I have had heard it suggested that the lights are on but no one’s at home but have never been accused of my lights having gone out.

Pros: Not Your Honour’s lights….the clock. The red clock at the front of court. If it goes off we are not being recorded.

The clerk stands and whispers to the Judge. The clerk then disappears under the desk and the sound of plugs being unplugged and reinserted are heard. The clock flickers back on

HHJ: At least nothing of any note has been missed in all that. And now I do have the statement, so thank you Mr Babbage and the wifi facility offered by “Bump and Grind” coffee shop. Now, what is your objection to the statement.

Def: The first ground is the late service of the statement. Your Honour will see that the statement is dated three months ago but was only served last month.

The Judge raises her hand

HHJ: That should be easy enough, I am sure there is a relatively straightforward explanation for the delay. Mr Sugar?

Pros: I am instructed the delay was caused by the statement being twiffed to the CPS by the officer……

HHJ: Twiffed?

Pros: Yes, twiffed. That is when the officer places a document in the case on the case tree…..

HHJ: Case tree?

Pros: Yes, when a document is electronically transferred from the police to the CPS it appears on the “case tree”. The case tree is where the documents are kept, electronically. Now the problem is that when the officer “twiffs” the document on to the tree the file name that the officer has given the document disappears. It gets relabelled “Document 1”. It being the first document twiffed on that occasion. So if documents are twiffed on more than one occasion EVERY document is called “Document 1” so the caseworker has no idea that a new document has arrived. It is a case of not being able to see the would-be statement for the electronic trees.

HHJ: I am sure that makes sense to somebody somewhere. Is the long and the short of it that the police system and the CPS system do not talk the same language?

Pros: That fairly sums it up, if I may say so.

HHJ: Remarkable.

The Judge pauses and seems to sniff

HHJ: Can I smell burning?

Pros: (looks down) Errrr yes, Your Honour. It would appear that my CPS-issue laptop has spontaneously combusted…..

HHJ: Gentleman I am going to rise until such time as the technology allows us to make progress with this case. May I suggest that a Mr Caxton invented something that seemed to fit the technological demands of the courtroom?