Criminal Justice System for Dummies – or an account to assist Boris Johnson and Chris Grayling in understanding some of the problems with the Criminal Justice System

A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson said he wanted to run CPS London and the London Courts as he could make them work more efficiently. I question whether Boris Johnson has ever been into a Magistrates Court, although I accept that more and more of his MP colleagues are seeing the inside of a court dock!

So here’s is a dummies guide to the process of a case coming to trial for Boris Johnson, Chris Grayling and all the others who think they know how to run OUR criminal justice system better than we do! Please bear with me this is a long tale, but there is a reason for that which will become obvious at the end.

PC Pleb attends the scene of a crime, he is confronted with an angry victim ‘ I dialed 999 nearly 2 hours ago.. Where have you been?’ Sorry Ma’am’ says PC Pleb on his 5th apology of the day ‘ but I had to take someone to hospital, the ambulance service didn’t turn up, probably on account of the fact there were only 5 ambulances covering our area…it’s the cuts you see’

PC Pleb takes an account from the victim but isn’t quite sure about the weak identification evidence, he needs to check it out with someone more experienced, he calls his Inspector. His Inspector tells him she can’t talk as she is doing custody time limit and detainee welfare checks on all 4 custody suites in her area. ‘Oh, I am on my way back to the Police Station I shall come and see you’ says PC Pleb. ‘ I’m not in a police station’ says his Inspector, I’m doing the checks remotely by telephone without actually being able to see a single detainee as I’m also Silver Commander at 2 different major incidents, I’m the only Inspector available today. Call the CPS.’

PC Pleb calls the CPS and after the 3rd attempt to get through, Prosecutor Harassed answers the phone. She is not actually a qualified lawyer, and has no court experience and is very stressed. ‘ It’s the lack of staff, so many are off on sickness with stress, the pressure of having to deal with so many calls is getting to all of us.. ‘ she apologises when PC Pleb complains about the delay in getting through. As PC Pleb is explaining his case, Prosecutor Harassed is aware of other calls coming through that she can’t answer, she needs to get PC Pleb off of the phone. ‘You need an ID parade’ says Prosecutor Harassed, ‘ring back when you have done one’. PC Pleb is confused by this ‘But the victim says it was her neighbour, so all she will do is identify her neighbour, my query is with the fact it was dark, she didn’t have her glasses on and couldn’t have seen properly’ says an exacerbated PC Pleb. But to no avail, Prosecutor Harassed is adamant and cuts the call.

Fast forward to the 1st court date. Nasty Neighbour, who attended the ID parade and was picked out by the victim, attends court and pleads not guilty. The trial is set for 11 months time, it can’t be sooner as so many courts in London have closed that there is now no court space. Prosecutor Disillusioned is prosecuting in court, she has no dates to avoid for the witnesses, despite the fact the Victim and PC Pleb have specifically given their holiday dates to the CPS in advance. But these dates are sitting in the CPS inbox. The case workers who used to collate these files have all been made redundant. But the emails are in good company with another 1000 odd emails which haven’t been opened.

5 months later Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There is still trying to obtain papers from the CPS. His secretary spends hours each day with the phone on loud speaker ringing out to the CPS, but, like the emails, those who used to answer the phones, they are long gone, replaced by Electronic Working. The only problem is that it doesn’t actually work.

Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There asks the court to list the case for a mention. This is difficult for the court as it has no court staff to handle the court listings, so he receives a general letter telling him that the District Judge is compiling a list of cases where the CPS are not complying with their obligations, but sadly there is no space for a hearing. ‘ Well, that will work then’, thinks Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There.

1 week prior to the trial PC Pleb gets a phone call telling him he has to attend court for the trial ‘ but it’s my only rest day that week’ he moans. ‘The court doesn’t run for your convenience’ he is told. He duly informs his 2 children that their day out is cancelled as he has to be at court.

The night before the trial, the victim tosses and turns all night, worried about going to court the next day. A few hours previously someone in the CPS had realised that nothing had been done on the file, no trial preparation, and the case clearly wasn’t ready. ‘ Ring Chambers and instruct a barrister to go to court tomorrow, let them get the kicking from the District Judge’ says CPS Manager Seven ( there are another six managers but they are all in a meeting deciding on what to discuss in tomorrow’s meeting!).

Barrister Worn Out and Skint turns up at court on behalf of the CPS the next day to explain to the judge that the case can’t go ahead. The District Judge asks for a background to the case, but unfortunately Barrister Worn Out and Skint doesn’t know the case. He explains to the District Judge ‘ all the papers are electronic these days, but I don’t have a CPS tablet and they won’t allow us to load them into our own laptops. They did say they would send some papers to me, but they don’t have a spare courier, apparently they used up the courier budget months ago.’

Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There asks the court throw out the case as it’s been going on long enough and the CPS have provided no papers. District Judge Constrained By Targets tells the defence that it isn’t professional to raise this on the day of trial, and that it should be raised sooner. Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There explains that the court refused his request for a hearing, but is told that he should have tried harder..

The trial is adjourned, without PC Pleb or the victim setting foot in the court. Barrister Worn Out and Skint asks that they are brought into court so that the adjournment can be explained, but by that time the court clerk has already arranged to take work from the overloaded court next door. All parties leave feeling ignored and frustrated. That’s just how it is.

Fast forward another 6 months and the same situation applies, with one difference, Prosecutor Experienced looks at the file the night before the trial and realises that the identification evidence is flawed and there is no realistic prospect of conviction. He emails the court a discontinuance notice, but the court computer system has crashed, and the discontinuance notice doesn’t get through. Prosecutor Experienced tries to send a discontinuance notice to the defence but the CPS system has also crashed, so he puts the notice in the post as he walks out of the office that night.

On the day of trial, Round 2, all parties are there except a prosecutor. The court clerk finally manages to get hold of a CPS manager and is told that the case was discontinued last night. At the same time, Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There gets a call from his office to say that a discontinuance notice just arrived in the post. The victim leaves the court in tears, after another sleepless night. Nasty Neighbour leaves the court very annoyed, he protested his innocence all the way through this, but lost his job due to the adverse publicity. Defence Solicitor Just Hanging In There walks away wondering about how long it will take the Legal Aid Authority to deny him any fee for the 2 ineffective trial hearings. PC Pleb calls his wife, he might be able to spend part of his 2nd lost rest day with her after all.

This is a very long and sorry tale, and if you have reached the end you are probably feeling the same way those of us in the Criminal Justice System feel…worn out and wondering how we got into this mess. The answer to that question is pretty clear in this case. Provide sufficient resources to the CPS so that they can employ experienced staff and give them the discretion to make decisions. That way PC Pleb’s initial concerns about identification problems would have been confirmed by a lawyer with experience of court work, either on the initial phone call or shortly after on a file review, and all the wasted cost and stress of this case would have been avoided.

*Some of the details of this case have been changed to protect my client, but this type of fiasco is happening every day across the Country in magistrates courts.

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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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