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Time To Reflect – Discussing The Criminal Justice System

This isn’t the sort of job that gives you much space to stop and think. I help my clients to consider, analyse and reflect. But my work is so intense, I rarely take the time to dwell on the area of legal practice I have spent over twenty years committed to. But last week I took my 14 year old son to a London Crown Court to get a taste of my world and it made me think.

My client was on trial for multiple armed robberies. The offences were said to have been committed at the end of 2019 and he was arrested shortly after. He had been in custody for over three years waiting for this trial and even this listing had hung in the balance as the court waited three days for a judge to become free to preside over it. My son was shocked at how long my client had remained in prison – weren’t people innocent until proven guilty? A previous trial listing had been put off when the prison refused to transport my client due to a distant Covid contact – long after the general population was no longer required to isolate in those circumstances. Nearly a year later his trial was again adjourned due to the Bar Strike. I explained that delay was now what we had come to expect. It was endemic in the system. In 2022 it took an average of 357 days for a case to conclude in the Crown Court following charge. The cogs grind slowly when there is such a backlog of cases – at the end of last year, there were 61,737 cases waiting to resolve – twice the amount as before Covid and falling slowly. In fact courts have become less efficient at resolving cases than before the pandemic.

We shuffled in a long snaking queue to be searched to come in to this huge court centre. My client’s case was being heard in a tacked-on room, hardly attached to the main building and clearly never intended to still be standing and functioning in 2023. The court room had all the gravitas of porta cabin. The state of court buildings has long been a concern. A report commissioned by the Law Society and released last December laid bare the crumbling state of England’s court buildings. In fact, The Crown Court we were standing in was one of the five most mentioned for poor experience. Lawyers across England related alarming examples of deterioration in their local courts, with two thirds of respondents experiencing delay to their cases in the last 12 months directly related to the physical condition of the building. The Law Society president commented that, “The poor state of court buildings across England and Wales is both a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases and a stark illustration of the lack of investment in our justice system”

I explained to my son that in this case, I was acting under Legal Aid. It meant, with a case of this complexity, my client would get my help as well as excellent counsel and that we had been funded to explore and challenge all aspects of the case against him including obtaining expert analysis and reports on DNA, facial mapping and firearm analysis. I told him that I was confident in this case that this client with no means would have benefitted from a defence of the same quality as privately funded. But it would only be at the conclusion of this case that we would be paid and this wait for fees and the low rates compared to private fees have created a challenging landscape for some firms. This had only got worse as companies struggled to deal with the backlog of cases and increased work. Some had decided that it was just not possible to continue. From October 2022, there were just 964 firms holding a criminal Legal Aid contract, compared with 1,652 in April 2012.

We sat and watched the closing speeches. For me, I was close to the finishing line of three years of work preparing this difficult case for trial. I watched the jury listen to my client’s barrister list the points which questioned the prosecution case – the points which drew on the defence case we had worked so hard to support. This may be a challenging field. There is so much that needs to be done to improve the system and ensure the highest quality representation for both sides of a criminal case. But it’s a job that continues to be a privilege to perform. And I think this teenager got a hint of that.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you if you have been arrested, contact our expert Criminal Defence solicitors now on 0330 822 3451 or request a call back. 

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