Lets stop Kidding Ourselves – the Criminal Justice System is fast running out of Justice, but the time limits must be obeyed.

Following on from my rant a few weeks ago, which went viral and was supported by people working in all areas of the criminal justice system and beyond, but was ignored by the Ministry of Justice, here is the next installment.

It is 1am and I have just finished my 19 hour work day trying to triage criminal legal aid cases, but I do hope that the Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister are enjoying their, very long, summer recess, courtesy of the tax payer.

What is frightening is that the Ministry of Justice and other Government Departments are doing nothing to try and stem the blood loss of the criminal justice system as it gushes out from us caused by the ‘we are all in it together’ (unless we are on summer recess at a Portuguese villa or enjoying the hospitality of a Russian Oligarch on his yacht in the Mediterranean) austerity cuts. This all sounds very melodramatic, but I think it is my way of saying that I am moving towards hysteria, and not in a good way.

I have a suggestion for the Ministry of Justice and other Government departments to help them realise what is blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever set foot in a police station, court room or prison – although, I accept that it is a bit difficult to do that when you are whinging about the fact you had to resign from your constituency role as receiving only £28000 a year in expenses to cover a second home has made life intolerable.  Ditch the forms and the time limits and concentrate on getting the Criminal Justice System back to a workable state.

The CPS will now rarely serve the full papers in a magistrates court case more than 14 days prior to trial, its not entirely their fault as the each person in the office who wasn’t offered a ridiculously large sum of tax payers money to leave under voluntary release redundancy is now doing the work of the 10 people who were. But lets face it, completing a form in triplicate to confirm that another form has been completed is an important task, that pesky preparation of trial files can wait.

In any event, the CPS can’t serve the statements they don’t have. PC Single Crewed, covering an area of 35 miles on his own, is highly unlikely to have the time to write up his statement, and ensure that it actually includes all the relevant details. But fear not, he is going to be given a tablet so that he can write his statements on the go….now all he needs to do is drive and type at the same time..oh, but isn’t that illegal?
Note to the Rt Hon Teresa May..‘please exempt police officers from the texting and driving ban – yes, I know its dangerous but the officer needs to tick those boxes, so that another member of staff can check to make sure he has ticked the boxes within the set time limit’.

By a miracle, the Police and CPS manage to serve the papers in good time prior to the trial, and so its full steam ahead for the trial…or is it? Dwindling Fast and Co Defence Solicitors are unable to find a lawyer who can take a day out to go and visit their client in prison to discuss their case. All but one lawyer was laid off last week due to legal aid cuts – something to do with fat cat lawyers, who stood up to a man named Grayling, getting their comeuppance.

Even if they can find a lawyer, the chances are that when they get to the prison it will be on lockdown due to a shortage of prison officers. But on the bright side, the private prisons are employing lots of temporary staff, on minimum wage rate, who have no powers of arrest. This means that for anyone who wants to try and take contraband into prison it’s their lucky day, get caught and the staff can’t arrest you, all they can do is refuse to let you in and call the police…better luck when you try again next week, by which time PC Single Crewed who is 35 miles away may just have arrived to answer the call.

Dwindling Fast and Co Defence Solicitors send a junior barrister to court to argue that that want to serve a defence case statement out of time, something to do with no staff, prison lockdowns and the papers being served 7 months late by the CPS. The court is mindful of the Criminal Procedure Rules and the phrase ‘dealing with the case efficiently and expeditiously‘ which glows from the front page of the numerous memos the court receives from the Ministry of Justice. Hence, no extension of time for the junior barrister, just a feeling of being in the headmasters office as the court explains that “The Court does not run at the convenience of the Defence”. The Junior barrister does accept that clearly is the case, the court doesn’t seem to run for the convenience of anyone any more… but time limits are time limits and like targets they must be obeyed at all costs, despite the fact they are now unworkable for all parties.

Hence, the Police, CPS and Defence all rush to try and cobble together a case to ensure that the court time limits are complied with…

# the CPS should have made an application for the witness to give evidence behind a screen, but the time limit for that has been and gone, and anyway, if the witness shuts her eyes while giving evidence, isn’t that the same thing?
# the defendant would have liked to have brought along some witnesses, but they couldn’t get the time off work due to staff shortages, they work for the Ambulance Service (and that’s another story);
# the police officer is sitting in the swanky new video suite in his police station (which is stuck out on an industrial park next to the motorway – police stations which are in the town and which the public can get to easily are so 1990s) waiting to give evidence via video link rather than coming to court. This is perfect apart from the fact the case has been listed in a court room which has a broken video link unit….it is due to be fixed as soon as the new budget is received, can the officer please sit there until April 2015?

And then, after a two hour wait, the court informs everyone that it hasn’t got time to deal with the case due to over listing…and the Magistrate announces “we are very sorry, but that’s just the way it is”. What this actually means is that the case doesn’t fall into the current categories of priority, and the court is monitored to ensure it is keeping to its time limits for the priority trials, so all other cases suffer.

That’s just the way it is for –
* the defendant who will have to go back to jail on remand and have the stress of this case hanging over him for a while longer;
* the witness who wasn’t able to sleep last night for the fear of having to come to court today;
* the police officer who had his rest day cancelled so that he could attend court; and
* the junior barrister who will just about cover her train fare with her fee for the day.

Yes, unless all of us caught up in this criminal injustice system do something about it, that’s just the way it is….

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

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