Courts are a farce

Today I spent the morning in disbelief as I watched the goings on in a trial court at a magistrates' court.  If a TV show portrayed proceedings as they actually happened nobody would believe it.  They'd say it was a caricature of the system, deliberately made worse to make a point about inefficiencies.  But, it's not.

At 10am I sat in court as the bench walked in.  Unfortunately, no prosecutor was in court, he had been in but had left.  A list caller went to fetch him.  She returned saying she had seen the prosecutor but he did not pass on a message and he wasn't with her.  The court waited.  The list caller was dispatched again.  She returned still prosecutor-less - personally I had an image of him sitting in his room telling her to "f**k off".  All I can say is I had to twist his arm to get him to bother to read my two one-page witness statements.  A tannoy announcement was made by the clerk ordering the prosecutor to attend.  Nothing.  For a third time the list caller was dispatched.  She returned and a minute later a completely unashamed prosecutor showed up making a very half-hearted apology.  I must be fair to the CPS and say that this chap was not a CPS employee but an independent barrister instructed to prosecute the trials in that court that day.  Frankly, I doubt he would dare to try that nonsense in front of a DJ or a Crown Court judge.

Things went wrong for me when I found out my 20 to 30-minute case was listed behind a 4-hour trial and then a 2-3-hour trial, plus a committal hearing and a pre-trial review.  First let's remember that this is the morning list and that the morning sitting begins at 10am and ends at 1pm, so how they expect to squeeze about 8-hours of hearings into that time I do not know.

Fortunately, the CPS had failed to get any papers together for the PTR so that quickly went out the window.

Next the 4-hour trial.  There were obvious problems with this case that I couldn't help but notice, all of which stemmed from the CPS's failure to serve their case on the defence.  Much to my annoyance, the CPS tried to claim that they "might" have served the papers but weren't sure.  They pointed to the fact that there was a letter on their file enclosing the papers.  The fact that the letter had the defendant's name but no address didn't seem unduly problematic to anybody except the defence (and me), who were represented by a very young pupil who seemed somewhat nervous.

The lack of papers caused particular problems as a witness helpful to the defence had been tendered; this means that the Crown do not intend to call the witness but pass on that person's details and statement so that the defence can call them if they want to.  Because the CPS had failed to serve any papers, the defence did not know the witness had been tendered and this helpful witness was not at court.  Because nobody had thought to ask him or her for their telephone number they were un-contactable.  The court, in its wisdom, chose to dispatch the DC in charge of the case to the witnesses home to see if they could pop along to court.  The DC didn't have a car so had to take the bus on the 30 minute trip to the witnesses address, despite knowing that the witness works full time and so probably wouldn't be there anyway.  While on the trip he was also to organise the printing and service of various missing prosecution papers that the defence didn't have.  He had to do this on the bus since a) the court had sent him on a fools errand; and b) the computer equipment in the court wasn't working so he was calling other officers at the police station.  There were now two detectives tied up with this nonsense.

The thing that really annoys me in courts and that makes them look particularly farcical is this need to appear to deal with everybody even-handedly even when a problem is blindingly obviously only one party's fault.  I suspect that this is the reason why the defence are always heavily criticised when the prosecution don't bother to do their job.  This particular firm of solicitors had written to the CPS twice and informed the court of the lack of disclosure back at the start of January.  Having spoken to one of the clerks in court, it appears that the address lawyers are told to send their correspondence is in fact an administration address and often important case progression letters are not passed on to court clerks.  Despite having prompted the CPS twice and informed the court, the defence came in for as much flack as the CPS for the Crown's failure to comply with their legal obligations.  This is frequently the case.

Next up was the minor problem that the complainant wanted to give evidence behind a screen but that the prosecution hadn't bothered to make an application.  As I said in my last post, the good thing about screens is that they help honest witnesses who might otherwise be intimidated.  The bad thing is that they help dishonest witnesses who might otherwise struggle to lie about somebody to their face.  Because of this risk, special measures applications must be made in writing within a set time frame.  However, because everybody forgets about the negative side of special measures and only ever thinks about the positives courts routinely grant special measures out of time, without a proper application being made and without giving any consideration to the relative merits of the special measure sought in the particular case.  In fact, the court clerk made clear to the defence barrister, when she shyly suggested that a proper application might be nice, that in fact courts were always minded to grant these applications no matter what!

On the subject of special measures, try asking a court for a screen to protect a vulnerable defendant from the gaze of the public gallery or his accuser as he sits in the dock for days waiting to give his evidence.  Try asking for special measures when the defendant actually gives evidence.  Good luck.

On an unrelated point, I don't know the defence advocate or which Chambers she is from, but she did seem to be out of her depth on this trial.  As costs are cut back you will find that senior lawyers spend less and less time training and developing the skills of junior lawyers.  This causes both delay and injustice.

The court system is rapidly descending into farce.  There will always be problems with when big organisations talk to one another and try to work together with smaller organisations and individuals.  But, the truth is that the last Government and the current bunch cut back on the Criminal Justice System in the good times and they are cutting back even harder in the bad times (everything is being cut except IT... why is it Government's love expensive computers so much?)  To save money administration is remote from courts, which means communication is often difficult if not impossible.  The CPS seem to be forever centralising, de-centralising, moving out of police stations, moving back into police stations.  I don't think any of the CPS offices I dealt with when I first began practice exist any more.  This means that defence lawyers never know where to contact prosecutors and, I suspect, prosecutors never know where any of their papers are.  All of this is a recipe for minor short-term savings in exchange for long-term cost rises as cases are delayed, put back and ultimately appealed.


  1. I just wish those High Court judges who hear appeals by way of case stated or judicial review were sent to watch what happens for a week in your average city-centre magistrates’ court. I’m sure we’d get far fewer fingers-in-ear “nothing is wrong” judgments.

    That said, some things will never be helped until the government starts to put some money back into the system (e.g. how many CPS offices in courts have a working printer?).

    On the other hand, though, some things don’t need more money. The dishing out of special measures, s.36 orders and restraining orders with no legal or evidential basis goes on day in and out and is just appalling. Perhaps as a corollary to the High Court judges being sent to the Magistrates’, more Magistrates could be sent to watch some serious crime in front of a red judge in the Crown court. It might teach them a thing or two about justice and the rule of law...

    PS. Why is it that magistrates courts cannot list properly? The county court is more than capable of listing 12 hearings in a single court in a morning with each hearing given a 15 minute slot from 10.00 to 12.45. There’s no reason crime should be any harder to do and then people wouldn’t have to hang around so long and spend so much time arguing just to be heard.

  2. Your tale sounds depressingly familiar. Just yesterday we had to adjourn a case off for a week because the documents on the prosecutor's screen wouldn't come off the CPS printer.

  3. Effective, accountable management at the CPS and HMCTS would be a good start.

  4. Magistrates do sit regularly with Crown Court Judges doing appeals whereby both sides get an inkling of each other's problems. The Benches are as frustrated as everyone else but even with robust case management cannot achieve miracles. The courts over list every day on trials and if your case is not one of the priorities then you may not even get on at all. Basically HMCTS don't care.


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