As a barrister, I am no stranger to injustice. The client falsely accused, judges who might not accept my valid arguments or a sentence wrongly imposed. All are daily features of life at the Criminal Bar yet all are matters which the court process can deal with. A trial and a jury can deal with baseless accusations. The Court of Appeal stands ready to overturn errant rulings, or correct improper sentences. Our Criminal Justice System is, by and large, ready and able to remedy such matters and ensure that justice is done.
What should concern us all though, is a new class of injustice creeping into the system and one which not only can the Courts not deal with, but is one which is created by the Courts themselves. The problem is one of listing.
Listing is the process which assigns criminal cases to courts on any given date. Problems arise when the date between the alleged offence and the trial taking place become too long. Witness's memories fade. Defendants have matters hanging over them unfairly and for too long. Victims suffer and justice suffers alongside.
The issue can best be illustrated by describing a trial which I was involved in last week. I say a trial but it can more properly be described as an abortive trial. The allegation was one of rape. It dated back to July 2013. The defendant was arrested that same day but it was not until December that he was charged and brought before the court. A trial date was set down for June of this year, some 6 months after his first hearing. There are many who would say that 6 months is too long. I would agree. Unfortunately, a 6 month delay is fairly standard and not my cause for complaint. The real problem was the evening before the trial was due to start, I was contacted by the court to be informed that due to lack of available Judges the trial could not go ahead. Instead of attending court for trial, I attended so that a new date could be fixed. That date is in January of 2015, some 18 months after the offence is said to have taken place.
Should this have been a one off, then it would be deeply unfortunate but not a cause to write this article. Regrettably it was not a one off but evidence of a systemic failure. In court alongside me were 3 other counsel, all trying to get new dates for their trials which could not go ahead due to lack of court time. A burglary trial, a benefit fraud and a supply of class A drugs, all got shunted into 2015. The burglary trial was on its 4th such adjournment.
What makes these all too frequent adjournments such a matter of concern is the reason for lack of court time. It is not, as one might think, due to an increasing workload within the courts. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The latest statistics show falling crime and a decreasing workload. Rather, the blame can be laid at the doors of the Ministry of Justice and their constant cuts to budgets. The MoJ have quotas as to the amount of judicial sitting days they will pay for. In the past, Recorders (part time Judges) would be brought in to help deal with the workload. Nowadays, due to quotas and lack of budget they aren't. At Manchester Crown Court, the day my trial was due to start 2 courtrooms were empty and not sitting at all. The reason, cuts. An examination of court lists up and down the land shows a similar picture. Courts sitting empty, trials being adjourned and all due to a failure to put resources in to allow for a properly run justice system.
The consequence of this is injustice. For the complainant in my rape trial, she now has to suffer the ordeal of believing she was to be giving evidence, only to be told it is to be delayed until next year. For the defendant, he now has to have matters hanging over him for a further 6 months before he gets his day in court.
What makes matters worse is in fact there is no real cost saving. The failure to pay for sufficient judicial sitting days does not save money. The trial will take place at some point at which stage the cost accrues. The payment, like justice, is delayed. The problem though, is that when Justice is delayed, it is also denied.
What the MoJ fail to recognise is that they are not running a business. The purpose of the Criminal Justice System is not to see that costs are avoided but that victims are treated properly, the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted. With their constant cuts to the system and delayed trials becoming the norm, what was once a system to be proud of is fast becoming a system in meltdown, a system in disrepute. The sad truth is cuts do not lead to a more efficient system. Rather, they lead to avoidable delays and unfairness to all.