Tag Archives: FOH

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. 

Auto Pilot

The Court of His Honour Judge Parr-Teeline QC in the Crown/Magistrates’/Civil Justice/Family Court sitting at the  Georgraphical Area known as “The North”. It is 8:32 am on day 1,735 of the Flexible Operating Hours pilot scheme. There is the customary knock on the door and all stand for the Judge. All, that is, bar one advocate who has his head on the desk and is snoring loudly. 

HHJ P-T QC: (coughs loudly) Mr Van-Winkle…ahem….(louder) MR VAN-WINKLE

Mr Van-Winkle wakes with a start and leaps to his feet. He pulls his gown tight around his body in a defensive cloak. 

MR V-W: Very sorry Your Honour, I was involved in a sentence in Her Honour Judge Worker’s evening shift court last night and it hardly seemed worth heading home so I got my head down here. Seemed a more efficient way of deploying the Court Estate. 

HHJ P-T QC: No problem, Mr Van-Winkle, but perhaps….just….(the Judge points to his own wig)

Van-Winkle’s hand feels the top of his head where he discovers a Victorian style night cap. He quickly whips it off and replaces it with his wig. The Judge now addresses the Court Clerk.

HHJ P-T QC: Right, can we have the defendants into the dock please. 

The Court Clerk stands and speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear. 

CC: I am sorry Your Honour, they haven’t been produced. Apparently the van bringing them here set off at 5.30 this morning but had to drop off at two other local courts and pick up from the overnight midnight remand court. I am told they won’t be here until 2.30 this afternoon. 

HHJ P-T QC: I am sorry, you said “local courts”. How on earth can it take until 2.30 to get here from two other local courts?

CC: Well, since the FOH pilot has been running, coincidentally one or two buildings have been mothballed. The nearest court to here is 100 miles away. 

HHJ P-T QC: Right, well, we will just have to put this case back to 2.30 and we will deal with it then. 

CC: I am sorry Your Honour, but this afternoon this courtroom is being used by His Honour Judge Tardy for day 12 of a 3 day burglary trial. They lost 8 days due to counsel drafting formal admissions and having conferences. They used to do it over lunch, but of course there isn’t a short adjournment any more. Only long ones. 

HHJ P-T QC: So I can’t sit in this courtroom at a time to accommodate an entirely predictable but unforeseen hiccup?

CC: No

HHJ P-T QC: That’s not very “flexible” is it? (becoming somewhat exasperated) We will just have to sit in Court 2…

CC: Ah. Again, a problem I am afraid. Court 2 is the Parking Dispute Hub between 1.15 and 2.30. Then it is sitting as the Tribunal of All Things between 2.30 and 3.30, is hosting a children’s tea party between 3.30 and 4.15 and then is sitting as a Magistrates’ Court until 7pm. Then it becomes the Wizengamot. Harry Potter is in trouble again. 

HHJ P-T QC: But this is still the Crown Court, right? Where we do Crown Court cases? Criminal cases? That do not always start and finish on time? 

CC: If Your Honour wants to look at it from a purely jurisdictional silo point of view….

HHJ P-T QC: A what?

CC: A jurisdictional silo point of view….

HHJ P-T QC: Yes, yes, yes. I heard what you said. But what does it mean?

CC: I dunno. I read it somewhere. You’re the Judge. You are meant to know what it means. 

HHJ P-T QC: I think you may need to lay off watching those old episodes of The Office…Anyway, let’s see if I can make some progress with just counsel. Who is for the first defendant?

(The Courtroom is in silence, apart from the faint sound of heavy breathing as Mr Van-Winkle has nodded off again)

CC: Now I can help you there. Counsel for the first defendant is Miss Life-Balance. Or it was. We have been informed that she has had to leave the Bar because it became impossible to find child care that fitted around the uncertain hours so it is now Mr Tether.

HHJ P-T QC: And where is Mr Tether?

CC: He emailed the Court this morning. If I can just read the email to Your Honour….

The Court Clerk bends down and begins to read from his computer screen

CC: Yes he emailed to say that the only train he could get that arrived on time for court left his hometown at 4.45 in the morning and involved three changes. He says that if you think he is staying overnight for a mention for which he doesn’t get paid then you’ve got another fuc….well, another thing coming. He then goes on to say that he couldn’t do anything anyway as they only found out that the case was listed at this time late last night because he was in the Mags until 8pm. Then there is some more swearing. A bit more swearing. Then he explains that, having got up at the crack of effing dawn to get the effing train, in fact it was effing-well late and he missed one of the connections so now won’t be here on time, despite having not slept and that if this causes a problem you can go….swing….. yes “swing” probably covers it. May not do justice to his full phrase, but you get the gist. There is then a whole paragraph about why the trains are delayed and swears quite a lot around the name “Chris Grayling” and repeats the phrase “what do you expect if you put him in charge of anything”….

HHJ P-T QC: ….that much the Court can take judicial notice of…..

CC: ….and he finishes with a plea that no matter what, could Your Honour refrain from ordering any more skeleton arguments because he has a 9.30 morning videolink hearing tomorrow, followed by a 4.30 videolink in the afternoon and a floating trial the rest of the week that he thinks may float either in the morning or the afternoon, not that he “effin cares any more” because “it doesn’t make a difference what I think as I am the bottom of the pile and no one listens” before he signs off “Up Yours, Enda Tether”. 

HHJ P-T QC: There is nothing else for it but to adjourn this hearing until next week. I myself am not sitting but…

(The Court Clerk rises to interrupt)

CC: Just one small problem for next week….

HHJ P-T QC: What is it? Is the Star Chamber sitting in this courtroom? Are they judging Crufts in here? Is the court needed to accommodate the Supreme Court? Are we hosting the Salem Witch Trials?

CC: No Your Honour, the courtroom is free to hear Crown Court cases….

HHJ P-T QC: What’s the problem then?

CC: With Your Honour being on holiday we haven’t got any sitting days left in the budget…so although we have plenty of space in the building…we don’t have a Judge…..

HHJ P-T QC: (bellows) OH FOR FUC…..

(At this point the transcript becomes unintelligible as Mr Van-Winkle emitted a loud snore. Mr Tether is believed to still be somewhere on the Rail Network. Miss Life-Balance now has a job where she is treated with respect and consideration. This is a new sensation for her.)