12:26, January 22 65 0 theguardian.com

2020-01-22 12:26:05
Courtrooms lie empty as trial delays increase, say barristers

Courtrooms are “lying empty” and judges are being prevented from presiding over trials while the backlog of criminal cases grows longer due to government cuts, according to a report by barristers in the west of England.

The number of sitting days on the Western Circuit – which includes Winchester, Southampton, Exeter and Bristol – has been cut by 15% by HM Courts and Tribunal Service in the past year causing “rocketing delays”, the study finds.

Some courts, it says, are booked solid – even for short trials – for the next nine months, while many cases are being adjourned and moved up to 100 miles away.

“The national average time between an offence and completion of the case in the crown court has [risen] over the last decade from 392 days in 2010 to 525 days in 2019,” the report says.

One unnamed resident judge quoted in the report said the restrictions were causing “Considerable concern to witnesses and advocates when they have attended anticipating the trial only to find it has had to be adjourned”.

That was particularly “galling”, the judge added, “if one of the judges is reading papers, preparing etc so as to ensure we do not exceed the limited number of sitting days. We have the court and judge available but not the sitting days within which to do the work.”

“Reading days are being imposed on judges to keep sitting days down,” the report says. “Although the judge is paid on an annual salary, money is still being saved by not paying court staff, advocates’ fees etc. Official figures for judges’ reading days are not available, but it is understood that they have increased as court sitting days have been decreased.”

The report, signed by Kate Brunner QC who is leader of the Western Circuit, concludes: “Judges are available, being paid, perhaps not working, while a single judge hears an over-burdened list, and witnesses are told that the trial which they have already waited a year for will have to be adjourned.”

Amanda Pinto QC, the chair of the Bar Councilrepresenting barristers in England and Wales, said: “The problems highlighted by the Western Circuit are by no means confined to one region. This is a national issue which is fast becoming a national crisis.

“Currently, crime is rising but courts are sitting empty. We are seeing an increasing time gap from an offence allegedly being committed to the end of the court case. The many months of delay and the false starts in hearing cases, are undermining effective access to justice for all those caught up in the criminal courts.

“This trend must be reversed. Investment must be made across the whole of the criminal justice system. With thousands more police and many more CPS prosecutors due to be recruited and, as a result, more crime likely to be detected, investigated and prosecuted, how will the justice system cope when our courts cannot function effectively now?”

The Ministry of Justice has denied that case backlogs are growing longer.