Barristers warn victims of crime being denied justice due to cuts imposed by Government

Barristers have warned that victims are being denied justice as crown courts sit idle due to cuts imposed by the Government.

They say trials are being abandoned, cases are being delayed and judges are overloaded with work because there are fewer “sitting days” – the number of days a year courts are allowed to open.

It means courtrooms can be left empty while work piles up in adjacent courts, leaving victims, their families and the accused waiting for up to two years for justice to be delivered.

Barristers said the problems are worse at smaller court centres, such as Gloucester where only one or two judges may be sitting, ahead of larger venues like Bristol and Winchester.

Court sitting days have been cut by almost 15%, from 97,400 in 2018/19 to 82,300 in 2019/20, and there has been an increase in judges’ “reading days”.

One Twitter feed, Idle Courts, has been regularly detailing the numbers of empty court rooms across England and Wales.

Meanwhile, the total number of people formally dealt with by the criminal justice system fell by 5% to 1.59 million in 2017/18.

Over the same period, forces in England and Wales logged just over five million offences, excluding fraud, which was an 8% increase on the previous year.

Kate Brunner QC, leader of the Western Circuit, compiled the report This Doesn’t Look Like Justice, assisted by junior barristers Anna Midgley and Holly Rust.

They carried out the survey on the Western Circuit, which covers courts from Hampshire across to Gloucestershire and Cornwall.

The report warns trials are taking longer as judges juggle other hearings, adjournments are at a record high and cases can also be transferred to a crown court centre 100 miles away at short notice.

They recommend:

  • an “urgent increase” in the number of court sitting days;
  • no reduction in available courtrooms at small court centres;
  • they call on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to publish statistics showing the current delays being experienced for trials;
  • and they urge the MoJ to take “greater account” of what resident judges and listings officers are saying about the effect of closed courtrooms.

Miss Brunner said: “The issues identified in this study are not unique to the Western Circuit – across the country, courtrooms are closed.

“What is happening in our crown courts today does not look like justice. Chaotic scenes are being played out of delays, last-minute adjournments and interruptions.

“The toll this is taking on witnesses, professionals, judges and others is being ignored.”

One barrister, who tweets under the name The Secret Barrister, said: “The report shows that due to police cuts, changes to bail rules and Ministry of Justice cuts to court sitting days, the average time taken for cases to conclude has rocketed over the last 10 years.

“The failure of the Government to pay for enough courtrooms to open means that the taxpayer is paying for judges to sit at home having ‘reading days’ while victims, witnesses and defendants see their trials repeatedly adjourned for ‘lack of court time’.

“The Ministry of Justice chooses to spend what little money it has on locking up a few people for a bit longer, rather than opening enough courtrooms so that justice can actually be done in court.

“Shameful, cynical, weak on crime and a betrayal of all, including victims.”

Amanda Pinto QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “This significant report exposes the real-life consequences of closed courtrooms and cuts to judges’ sitting days.

“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 can’t function effectively now?”

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