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21 September 2020

Justice, what justice? The Pandemic exposes the chronic state of the Criminal Justice System

4 mins

The BBC’s Crime Correspondent Clive Coleman painted a bleak picture of Criminal Justice in the UK when he spent a day at Inner London Crown Court Covid court delays: Weeds, leaks, and four-year waits for justice – BBC News.

Sadly his experiences are those members of the judiciary, lawyers,  probation, court staff, defendants and families suffer on a regular basis. I was embarrassed when I last attended Wood Green Crown Court with a senior overseas Diplomat (pre Covid-19) and had to avoid a scuttling rat and the contents of someone’s stomach as we approached the court. Wood Green Crown Court is a beautiful imposing Victorian Building but it is a bit like the Criminal Justice System, look too closely and you see the cracks.

Seeing it through this Diplomat’s eyes reinforced the long-held view of all those involved in the criminal justice system that successive governments have under-resourced this sector and the Treasury have given it little priority.

But behind every dilapidated Court is very real pain and injustice. For all those involved. This existed pre the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it.

Last week, my 18-year-old client was released from Belmarsh prison where he had been incarcerated since April 2020. It was the first time he had been arrested and he was charged with a very serious offence, although we knew the police were uncertain about the strength of their evidence. He was unable to have any social visits and we could only take instructions over video link. He was in almost 24-hour lockdown. The court were unable to even fix a trial date and I had to advise that there was a strong likelihood he would remain in custody until his trial, likely to be in 2021, despite his protestations of innocence.

When we finally had the disclosure we had been requesting since May and were able to make an application to dismiss (an application that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case against my client) the prosecution did not contest the application. He was freed immediately.

If we had not carried out the work we did, my client would have remained in custody until his trial. Because of our work (about 300 hrs) my client was freed after being in custody for 5.5 months. We will be paid £3,000 for the 300 hrs of work we carried out on that case. If the case had proceeded to trial, we would have been paid at least £30,000. This is because the criminal legal aid system works under a fixed fee scheme and a firm is paid according to the volume of papers and the stage a case reaches. The firm is not paid according to the work the defence team carry out or their expertise.

My client will receive no compensation for the wasted 5.5 months of his life and the emotional damage caused by being wrongly charged and locked up.

We have already commented on the frustrations of the judiciary and His Honour Judge Raynor’s decision to release a suspect once his custody time limits expired. Judge Raynor believes he was subsequently removed from deciding similar cases Judge makes formal complaint over Covid custody waits – BBC News. We have just learnt that the Government are attempting to make Crown Court jury trials possible by ordering plexi glass and other measures, but these orders for such materials were only made in July 2020, delivery due in September/October. Supermarkets had plexi glass in March. “Nightingale Courts” have been set up to supposedly deal with the backlog, but there are only 3 that deal with criminal courts.

Since lockdown began in March, the backlog of Crown Court cases has risen by 6,000 to 43,000. So, even before the pandemic, the backlog was at 37,000. Yet courtrooms lay empty because the Government cut the number of days Judges were allowed to sit supposedly to cut costs. The HMCTS estate has been sold off bit by bit so there are less actual courts

We only have figures for the Crown Court backlog. This does not even begin to touch on all those accused of an offence but released under investigation awaiting a decision to charge. We have clients who are into their 3rd year awaiting a decision. Their life held in limbo while the police or CPS decide whether or not there is even any evidence against them. Many are not charged, but that will not bring back those lost months/years.

Behind every statistic there is human misery – of the defendants whose life is on hold whilst they are under suspicion awaiting the outcome but also for the victims who cannot have justice. Lives for both parties are potentially in suspension, awaiting the resolution of the case. Justice is diluted as memories fade, justice delayed is justice denied.

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