Tag Archives: courts

Open All Hours

Fulford LJ is the Judge in Charge of Reform. This is a noble aim. The Justice System should reform. We should look at ways whereby modern technology is utilised effectively (effectively being the operative word). We should strive to make sure that the Justice System remains fit for its stated purpose (this is not the same as being popular). 

I certainly have the greatest of respect for Fulford LJ, the office he holds and even his special responsibility of reform. But this is not what we need right now. What we need is a Judge in Charge of Getting the Basics Right. 

This is not a sexy job title. This is not something which looks good on the CV when going for one of the big jobs. But it is needed in the Criminal Courts. And it is needed before we even begin with the ambition of reform. There is no point attempting to augment something which does not work in the first place. Even Chris Hoy would struggle on a titanium framed penny farthing. 

Let’s examine the Flexible Operating Hours pilot which Lord Justice Fulford has recently defended and the reality of every day life in the criminal courts. The FOH pilot has the stated aim of utilising the court estate with greater efficiency and operating at times which is more convenient for court users. 

Let us look at the reality. The reality is that a trial scheduled to start at 10am today did not get underway until 2.15 because the defendant was not produced from custody. This was because the van set off from the prison housing the defendant at just before 10am, a prison which is over two hours away from Court. This was not because something went wrong. This was not because it was only realised that the defendant was required at the last moment. This is because this is the way it is. This is the accepted reality of life in the courts. Whilst I cannot say it happens every single day (although I would not be surprised to find out it does) it happens with such frequency that every court user will recognise the scenario I have described. 

A courtroom sat empty whilst we awaited the van. A witness who could reasonably have expected their evidence to be concluded today was sent away until tomorrow. 

Now I can predict with certainty that barely a single prisoner will be delivered to court in time for an 830 am start or even a 930 start. Those prisoners who are in the afternoon shift will not get a lie in (you can bet that only one van will drop off so the defendant required for an afternoon hearing will come with the morning lot) and experience shows they will be lucky to get a Pot Noodle on their return in the evening. Imagine that in a trial. Day after day of early starts, hours in cramped court cells, a curled sandwich at lunchtime and no hot meal all week. If this is reform then it is only in the sense of the word used when Pink Floyd reform. We are not putting the band back together, we are putting the workhouses and the squalor of Victorian gaols back together. 

For late defendants you can substitute inadequate interpretation provision, poorly prepared lawyers, courtrooms sitting empty because there is no budget for judges (yes, really) and videolink technology that has all the reliability of an Austin Allegro built on a Friday afternoon. The Criminal Justice System is beset with difficulties. Solving these have to be the priority, not opening all hours. 

We are told that, should the Pilots be a success, the greater efficiencies will allow money to be spent on the rest of the system. We all know that “greater efficiencies” means closing court buildings. And that has huge consequences which are only amplified by FOH. 

Again, an example based on the reality of attending court. It is proposed that Newcastle will operate from 930am. This will require lawyers being there before then to conduct their discussion with their opponents and confer with their clients (if they are lucky enough to be on bail and therefore have a prospect of being there themselves on time). The earliest you can get to Newcastle from Birmingham by train is 9.27. From Liverpool it is 9.14. From Manchester you can get there with an hour before court. If you leave on the train at 5.47. And from London the earliest you can get there is 9.40am (or you could drive and leave the house at about 3.30 am).

This means that those lawyers with a hearing in the 930 court will either have to appear by videolink (not always practical, desirable or even achievable) or will have to stay the night before. The stay the night before will be at the advocate’s own expense (it is relatively uncommon to receive travel expenses and when you do they only cover the trial, not ancillary hearings like the sentence) and that expense may well come out of a fee which is £45. Or even £0. A more efficient use of the Court Estate may require the judicial car park at Newcastle to accommodate a caravan or two. Or maybe a yurt. Perhaps the dormant canteens can be reformed into dormitories. 

So this demonstrates a fundamental problem with the FOH that you don’t need a pilot, or even a train driver, to spot. They instantly throw a time and financial burden on the lawyers. And yet this only highlights a growing problem with the accessibility of courts. As the local court closes it will be the witness, the plaintiff, the victim and the innocent that cannot get to their nearest court by public transport. So the greater efficiencies strived for within the pilot turns the Justice System into a more remote silo of justice physically removed from the community it works to keep safe. 

These FOH pilots cost a small fortune. The CPS have to pay their staff more. Consultants will make a small fortune evaluating the results. Civil servants will devote time and energy writing blogs and implementation strategies. Right Honourable Lord Justices (or Lords Justice) will have to devote judicial time to writing letters to the ill-informed. 

Yet it is the ill-informed that could tell them all they need to know. It is the ill-informed who know the defendants will not be produced in time. It is the ill-informed who can look at a train timetable and realise they cannot get to court on time. It is the ill-informed who know that they will have cases that appear in both shifts in any given day and will be at court from 8 til 7. It is the ill-informed that know that those with childcare responsibilities will have their careers turned upside down by the unpredictability of our work being stretched over two or three shifts from dawn til dusk. 

So I go back to where I started. We do not need a Judge in Charge of Reform. We need a Judge in Charge of Getting the Basics Right. We need defendants produced on time. We need facilities that work and allow us to do the jobs required of us. And where do I suggest getting the money to fund these basics? Well you could start by scrapping the FOH pilot. After all, I don’t need six months evaluating the burns to my lap to work out that a chocolate teapot is not the way to make my morning cuppa. 

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.  

Tins Of Fish

It has always bewildered me that there is such an array of rules across the Prison Estate. I get that there has to be rules. I get that different establishments might have differing rules to suit the type of prison they are or to deal with any particular issues that they have locally.

And yet prison rules have still long baffled me. From the sign on a door that prohibited visitors bringing in, inter alia, “door stops and ladders” (how could a prison be defeated by wedging doors open and who could ever smuggle a ladder in?) to the prison that made me drop my trousers (a very long and not particularly edifying story) to the prison that turned over every page of my brief because “we had someone trying to smuggle a doughnut in…”, prison rules are, well, a law unto themselves. 

In Manchester we briefly had “the letter of introduction”. This was a letter which basically had to say “Hello, this is Jaime, he’s a barrister, and today he would like to visit one of your guests, Burglar Bill.”  A part of me always wanted them to have to finish with the phrase “and you shall let him pass without let or hindrance.” But they didn’t. 

My first introduction to letters of introduction was when I arrived at a prison and they told me I had to have one. This was news to me. I had not previously been introduced to the letter of introduction. The conversation went a little like this;

Officer: Where’s your letter of introduction?

Me: I haven’t got one. What is it?

Officer: It is a letter explaining who you are and why you’re here.

Me: Oh right. Never been asked for one of those before. Give me a moment and I’ll jot those details down on a piece of paper for you. 

Officer: No, that won’t do. It’s got to be from your boss. 

Me: I am self employed. I haven’t got a boss. I guess I am my own boss. So do you want it from me? Introducing myself?

Officer: Yes. 

Me: I’ll just jot it down then, like I just said…..

Officer: No! It’s got to be on headed notepaper. 

Me: Right, have you got a fax? Cos I’ll get some note paper faxed over and then I will write a letter on it formally introducing myself to you and sign it from myself to say it is deffo me. 

Officer: There’s no need to be arsey….

And so it went on. I didn’t get in the prison that day. But from that day forward I did carry a letter of introduction, like some emissary being sent on a diplomatic mission, and presented it at every prison I visited. Often I may as well have dropped my trousers (again) and shown my backside judging by the reception it got at most places. 

The letter of introduction now seems a thing of the past. Prisons feel no more or less safe. And in one of Machester’s prisons I can wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder and in the other prison I cannot wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder. I am sure this makes sense somewhere. Just not in the real world. 

My watch wearing is just an inconvenience. The real issue is which prison you can take your laptop or tablet into. Or, more importantly, what you have to do to be allowed to bring it in. One prison requires 48 hour written notice, another prison just needs you to mention it when you book in whilst another wants a letter from the computer’s mother and an oath taken in blood and bytes that the computer is who you say it is. 

Today I represented a man who was moved from a prison in London to a prison in Manchester and then back to London for his hearing today. I have mentioned in a blog previously that prison food is so bad that prisoners are concerned that protein is missing from their diet. I have plenty of clients that order protein shakes from the prison canteen to make up the deficit. These people are not bodybuilders, they just lack protein. My client today had overcome this by ordering 150 tins of mackerel and tuna as part of his “canteen”. 

A prisoner’s canteen is the extra stuff they can buy with their wages. Often it is tobacco or sweets. This prisoner wanted protein and decent food so he stockpiled tinned fish in his prison in London. And he was eating it three meals a day, had to buy when it was available and he amassed 150 tins of fish. He then got transferred to a prison in Manchester. A prison that did not allow prisoners to have tinned fish….

Now I appreciate that this sounds like I am making it up, but I promise you I am not. So at the Manchester prison his tinned fish hoard had to be stored. And today, when transferred from Manchester to court in London, his canned fish had to be bagged up in several bags and brought with him to London, just in case he ended up in a prison that let him have a sardine or two.

I know both prisons involved. They are very similar. Both privately run. Both house the same category of prisoner. They even look the same:

And yet in one prison you can buy tinned fish and in the other tinned fish is as prohibited as Class A Drugs and ladders….

The Criminal Justice System has become a disparate loose collection of different departments and entities, attempting to work together with little by way of overarching aims and guidance. I have no idea, from day to today, what I need to do to see a client, what I can take with me or whether they will be brought to court. And they have no idea whether Governor Antoinette is going to let them eat tinned fish or not. 

This disparate uncooperative co-op leads to delay and waste. And a man in the back of a prison van hurtling along the M6 with see-through bags full of contraband tinned fish. 

It has been a long day…..

Tomorrow Will Be Just Like Today

I have spent some time wandering around a Crown Court today. I have had plenty of time on my hands as the defendant in one of my cases was due at court for 10.30 and was delivered into the building at 3pm because those tasked with bringing him from London decided they could get all the way to Manchester in half an hour. I live seven miles away and I cannot do that, but a prison van can. Give or take five hours. 

My wanderings saw me encounter the “Continous Improvement Hub Room”. I am sure I have mentioned this in blogs previously. And so I should. It is an important thing, the continuing improvement of the CJS. It deserves both a hub and a room. 

I was wondering, as I wandered, if things had improved much since the last time I mentioned the “hub”. A glance at the list told me that four cases were listed to refix their trial date as they had been removed from the list due to “lack of court time”. A further examination of the list told me that EIGHT out of sixteen available courtrooms were not sitting on crime today. Seven of them were just shut up.

Undoubtedly this will due to a lack of money in the budget to pay for part time judges to fill the vacant courtrooms. The only current answer to this predicament is to get more people to plead guilty early in the absence of evidence. Access online to a case summary is to replace access to justice. 

Paperless courts are definitely the future. Which is a good job. As the CPS currently have no means of copying or printing a single document in this particular building at the present moment in time. 

So the list that I looked at was on a TV screen, produced by the first step in modernising the courts, the Xhibit system of publishing lists and recording representation. I could not look at it on the main, huge flatscreen display in the reception to the building as that is covered in paper with a sign that tells us there is a problem with the server that will be fixed some time soon. I think the sign has now been there for the best part of a year. So we all gawp at the covered screen like a certain vintage of Mayans must have looked at their decaying temples and astronomically precise towns whilst, admittedly somewhat improbably, they sang Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”. 

My promenade took me past the cell door, with its post-it-note addition on the bell that invited us to “press hard” because there is a faulty connection. I retired to the robing room to call Llisting. Unfortunately I could not as the internal telephone has been removed. 

So I began once again to circle the building to speak to Listing. And in the same circular fashion I ended up back outside the Continuos Improvement Hub. And in the same spirit I find myself writing exactly the same blog that I have written in the past. 

Will digital working cure all these ills? Not whilst the only papers loaded on to the system is a case summary which does not even mention the names of several people named in the indictment. Will “Better Case Management” cure all the ills? Not whilst defendants know they can put off the evil day to months down the line with a simple “not guilty” plea.

We should be working towards a better criminal justice system. Better case management contributes towards that.  It is far from the answer though, even when all the cherries fall into place in the slot machine of a single list of PTPHs that all plead. This does not mean that everything will suddenly improve. Not when the fabric, the infrastructure is so woefully underfunded. Not when those tasked with preparing the case are so stretched. Not when we fall into thinking that an increase in pleas is a panacea for faulty wiring and a system of private contracts which means that on two consecutive court days I have a defendant produced after several wasted hours without explanation or even a murmur of complaint. 

The system cannot rely on defendants who know whether they have done it or not pleading guilty. It has to be a system which can properly deal with all those defendants who do not. And that includes getting them to court on time, having a judge available to hear their case and a buzzer that gets you access to the cells. 

Those that continue to ignore this should be ready to enter their guilty pleas as the system decays further, for they are the ones who are culpable. 

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. 

A Perfect Day

Make us both a cup of tea and let me tell you about my day….

So off I went to court today ready to prosecute three bail applications, prosecute two sentences and defend in a PCMH. A busy day, much to do.

First stop was Court 10 for my bail applications. Three sets of papers clasped in my hands. Over 150 pages of information read and prepared the night before.

As had another barrister from another set of chambers in Manchester. He had the same three sets of papers. He had prepared the same three bail applications. We both had a “No, no, after you Claude” moment. Ultimately we could not both do them. I lost out in a legal game of paper, rock, scissors. Half my work, gone in the blink of an eye.

I will fast forward a little bit here. I told my clerk of the double booking. He made some enquiries. My colleague and I had been booked for the same bail applications in telephone calls made an hour apart on Friday.

So, back to my day at court. One defendant decided he did not want to run the risk of Christmas inside. So case adjourned, bench warrant issued and no prospect of putting the bill in this side of Christmas.

My other prosecution sentence proceeded smoothly. Which was more than can be said for the case up to that stage. The defendants had pleaded guilty on the day of trial. That is the sort of thing that the powers that be really do not like. Unfortunately this was a case that cracked by both the prosecution and defence carefully analysing CCTV of events surrounding the assault. CCTV footage that took the defence several months and two (unpaid) court hearings to get hold of.

My PCMH was adjourned too. No arraignment. The defendant is offering a plea, so hopefully it will resolve next time. But it was pretty difficult to have a PCMH today. The Prosecution had served their case late. Well, I say served their case. They had sent through two handwritten statements from civilians and one statement from the five officers involved in the case. They sent the exhibits in two halves. The first batch of exhibits stopped half way through an exhibit. Oh, and did not included the defendant’s interview. And none of the served exhibits had any statements producing them.

At least my day took a turn for the better as I picked up a breach of curfew brief at court. Woo, and indeed, hoo. Interestingly the defendant had originally been sentenced to a six month curfew in June. The curfew was to be electronically monitored. So in June the defendant went home and waited for the private contractor to visit his home and install the equipment.

And wait he did. For six weeks. In fact, by the time the company called in order to install the equipment he had got sick of waiting for them and was not at home. Unfortunately for him this was during his curfew hours so he was breached.

When the Judge heard of the circumstance at the breach proceedings in August he felt that there was blame on both sides. He split the difference and added a one month extension to the curfew. He also expressed the view that the private contractor really should install the equipment ASAP.

So home went the defendant. He waited patiently this time. He stuck to his curfew. So that meant he was at home when the company turned up to install the equipment. In NOVEMBER. Five months after the curfew was imposed. Three months after the Judge had said they needed to pull their finger out.

So by this time the defendant had had enough. He told them where to go. And got breached again. This time the Judge just cancelled the curfew. What was the point? It was an electronically monitored curfew. The public pay for the curfew to be monitored. And it simply was not being monitored.

So there we have my day at court. As I waited for my cases to get on or get adjourned virtually every case I witnessed got adjourned too. No CCTV served in one case, no interpreter booked in another case, no defendants produced from custody in another case and countless cases not ready because of late service.

All of this was being played out against a background of the court computer system, Xhibit, being down for the entire day.

All the cuts have led to this. All the cuts mean nothing is getting done. Staff are so over stretched they make basic mistakes like briefing two counsel for the same hearings. Nobody is dealing with the basics of disclosure. Paperwork is being thrown through the photocopier in an effort to at least serve something. Private contractors are being paid scandalous amounts for a scandalous service. Adjourned hearings lead to delay and additional cost.

Well at least I have tomorrow to look forward to. I have a trial listed tomorrow. Oh no, hang on. That should read I had a trial listed tomorrow. At the last moment it has been pulled from the list. Lack of court time. Again. So tomorrow is a mention and fix. So I can fix my trial for some time during the summer.

Bloody marvellous innit?

Avoiding the Cracks

Disturbing news reaches me from Aylesbury. Now there is a phrase that I have never had cause to use before. I apologise to Aylesbury if I have the location incorrect.

The news is this – in a Crown Court, believed to be Aylesbury, counsel and/or solicitors for both sides are being told that they have to attend an additional hearing, held on the last Tuesday of every month, in order to explain why their trial cracked on the day.

My blood boils.

We are used to seeing newspaper reports about out of touch Judges. That is something that always made me laugh as the Judiciary will experience more of all strata in society than most. Yet this practice demonstrates just how out of touch some criminal Judges are with the day to day realities of criminal law.

The very last thing Counsel need is yet another hearing for which they do not get paid. The very last thing Counsel needs is another commitment in their diary to juggle. The very last thing Counsel needs is to be treated like an errant schoolchild who has to explain themselves in the Head’s office.

I have cracked more trials than I have fought. If I had not, if I had fought every trial that I have cracked, I would have a diary of work from now until the day I retire (albeit that day is probably sometime when I have passed my 80th birthday).

The administration must know that the only reason why the system has not yet ground to a halt is because trials crack. A cracked trial means that tomorrow’s trial has a chance of a home. I have had more Judges thank me for cracking a trial than I have ever had thank me for running one.

The simple truth is that the opposite of a cracked trial is not an early guilty plea. It is a trial. I have sat opposite enough clients in 21 years to know that the moment of trial is the most fertile ground for advice to be tendered. You will have given the same advice months early. Yet the penny only drops at that moment.

Or you have clients that know the score. They make the decisions. They will weigh up the gamble of being able to extract something from the CPS or the prospect that a witness will not attend and decide they want to wait and see.

And when you are dealing with someone who is sufficiently chaotic that they sell drugs, decision making is not often high in their skill set. When you represent someone who would rather do an extra six months for a Bail Act Offence because they do not want to miss this Christmas and thereby guarantee they will spend next Christmas behind bars, all the talk about diminishing credit will not feature highly on their list of priorities.

I am afraid that a lack of resources for both the police and the CPS means that the full picture is only available to the advocate by the day of trial, if you are lucky. It is only then that justice can properly be served, justice to both sides. Many cases have no lawyer attached to them before this point. They languish, untouched on a shelf. It is only at the point of trial that someone is available to make the necessary decisions and will only latterly have had the information upon which to make them. That is the reality.

That politicians pretend or refuse to acknowledge this is one thing, for the Judiciary to do so beggars belief.

If you eradicate the cracked trial there is only one consequence – we are going to need a bigger court (the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that I have used that Jaws based joke previously, cut me some slack, I am recycling). Get rid of the cracked trial and you are going to have to be prepared for waiting times for trial to be double what they are now. And presently that can be a long time.

I hope the news from Aylesbury is wrong. I hope that such a scheme does not exist. I hope that those caught up in it do all they can to demonstrate the folly of it.

I have always resented filling in the cracked and ineffective trial form. Have always wondered why it is not accompanied with a “Why did this trial not crack?” form. Well from this moment on I am not completing them. Let the Government gather their statistics however they chose. I am not paid to do so. I will rely upon the Judiciary to tell them the realities and not to pander to some imagined picture of the criminal justice landscape.

Another Day, Another Moan

It is always the defendant’s fault. If it’s not the defendant’s fault then it will be the fault of the defendant’s dastardly lawyer. If we come down hard on them the system will run more efficiently and will be fairer as well. They are the enemies of justice. They are the cause of thousands of pounds of public funds going to waste.

Which is exactly what happened with a trial I defended recently. The shameful defence lawyer (me) asked for an adjournment because the CPS had served the medical evidence at 2pm on the first day of trial. The statement had only been written in May. It had only been sitting there on the file as the timetable for the service of the evidence lapsed in June.

However this is not what I am going to moan about today. It is such a common occurrence that it is barely newsworthy. All those lawyers getting paid very little as justice is delayed by glitches in the system is just not worthy of comment. Or worth doing anything about.

What I am going to moan about is the preliminary hearing that happens in every case. And yes I know I have moaned about this before. A lot. However something happened to me recently that highlighted how crazy the system has become. How terribly ill-thought. How dreadfully wasteful.

I prosecuted a prelim a while ago. When the PCMH came around I had not received any papers. I attended at court and discovered why. The prosecution had decided to discontinue the proceedings as there was no realistic prospect of a conviction.

This decision can only really be taken when all the evidence has been properly reviewed. The service of all the evidence only takes place after the prelim. The prosecution can bring an end to the proceedings by issuing a notice pursuant to section 23A of the Prosecution of Offenders Act 1985 which would bring an end to the proceedings there and then without further cost.

The problem is that the system now insists that an indictment is prepared for the prelim. This is so the defendant can plead guilty before the prosecution have a finalised idea whether there has been an offence or not. The consequence of this is that the prosecution are precluded from using the section 23A mechanism for discontinuing the proceedings because they can only do it before the indictment is preferred.

Brilliant. One device designed to force defendants to plead guilty before anyone knows whether they are guilty just to save costs defeats the device designed to save costs where everyone accepts the defendant is not guilty.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the criminal justice system. Injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency.

Why Should I Care?

In the last two days I have blogged/ranted/whined about the state of the criminal justice system. The courts are hurtling towards ineptitude and injustice, the prison system teeters on the edge of disintegration.

Who cares? I hear you cry. Why should the public, press and politicians care?

Every citizen should care, every journalist should examine this scandal , every politician should do all they can to understand the problem because the criminal law and the courts are absolutely central to our society.

No civilisation has ever existed without rules. Those rules give structure and set the standards of the civilisation. To enforce those rules the civilisation creates a system of sanctions. Then the civilisation shows that it lives by its deeds as well as its words by ensuring the sanctions are never imposed unjustly.

This is the sort of model that we would look to export throughout the world. Our concept of democracy is not just about an election or two. It is this idea of rights and responibilities, crime and punishment, law and equality before the law.

Our society looks to the law on an almost daily basis, no more so than at times of strife or concern. So we worry about young men going to Syria to join jihadists and BoJo suggests (admittedly ludicrous) criminal offences to ensure the safety of the nation. Concerns are raised about domestic abuse and the talk turns to legislation.

Whenever public safety is called into question, whenever there is the whiff of scandal in the establishment, whenever the sense of national morality requires resetting; we as a nation turn to the law and lawyers – Judge led inquiries with the examination and testing of evidence in public forums. This is what the public place their trust in.

This is why every simple case in the magistrates’ court is a gem in our democratic crown. Every exponent of the law, of rules of evidence and of the skills of the advocate are a vital player on our democratic stage.

We, as a society, set out to be better than those who break the rules by rising above the frailties of the individual and offering them the protection of the law.

This is all very noble. It is also all very vital. This is all in decline. We, as nation, need to recognise the value and importance of what we are losing. Before it is lost.