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October 8, 2016

Court reform: a view from the south

This post is really a homage to “One Wheel on my Wagon” from a criminal barrister who tells it like it is in the blog “A View from the North”.  This week he told the story of four Mondays, in which all his cases got cancelled, some after he had already travelled half way across the country at his own expense. Barristers never get compensated for cancelled cases – its just tough luck.  Nor do police officers, or the witnesses who have taken time off work to do their public duty.

The tragedy is that many hearings are cancelled for want of a judge, as Jaime points out, and it is seldom for want of a court-room.  Court-rooms lie empty, not because there aren’t cases to hear, but because we don’t have the personnel to man the courts.  A case in a magistrates’ court takes on average 162 days from offence to completion – that is a very long time considering the majority of cases are theft, minor assault and such like.  Cases which go up to the Crown Court take 185 days from first listing in the Crown Court to completion.  If our surplus court rooms could be manned, those delays could be reduced immeasurably.   Yet they are planning to close over 60 courts, and have reduced the pool of magistrates by over 10,000 since 2007, ostensibly because there is not enough work for them.

Jaime says there are theoretically enough judges in the Crown Court, but part-time recorders (who do a lot of the work) are sometimes only given a few days notice of their sitting dates so, not surprisingly, can’t do them.  I agree with all Jaime’s solutions (more resources and better organisation) but also have another radical one – consider taking responsibility for listing away from judges.

I have never quite understood why judges have fought tooth and nail to retain responsibility for what is a mostly administrative function.  Listing is just that – the organisation of which judge sits when and where. Though judges delegate the bulk of the work to administrative staff, the buck stops with judges and they are adamant about retaining power over listings. But judges have no training in project management or scheduling. Most of them were barristers.  Barristers do not often organise their own diaries – diaries are controlled by clerks.  There is no reason why judges should be good at organising the timing of court cases.  And in many instances they clearly aren’t – they don’t book recorders far enough in advance.  Another example: a judge who sits part time in the higher echelons of the courts was given a ridiculously high and complex case load to complete in one day.   It sounded as if he had been dumped on because other full time judges fancied an easier day. Maybe not.  Either way, it was bad listing.

Big organisations which need to design and implement complex schedules employ teams of trained project managers.  Do HMCTS and the judiciary?  I don’t know, but listing problems do lead to court delays and disgruntled barristers.  At the moment, availability of court rooms isn’t a problem (except when specialist equipment is required) but, when hundreds of court rooms have been closed, there will be yet another factor for listings to juggle with.  Who knows – maybe by then, the new and efficient online court system will have eliminated all listings problems?