One of the problems with our justice system is that it is theoretically open, but little is known about what goes on in court. Journalists seldom cover magistrates’ courts and members of the public either don’t know they can witness criminal cases, or don’t want to. If you do wander into a magistrates’ court, there are usually no other observers, bar the occasional student. And the experience can be unrewarding. It is difficult not just to understand what is going on, but to actually hear what people are saying since the sound systems are terrible and those speaking nearly always have their backs to the public gallery. But the BBC has done a great service in sending out local reporters to find out what is going on in magistrates’ courts. The BBC obtained figures to show that court delays had increased nationally, with some areas considerably worse than others. Cases in magistrates’ courts take 5 months on average, a week longer than four years ago. The BBC’s coverage online, on twitter and on air gave an insight into court delays:
1) the courts seem to be clogged up with minor offences which, arguably, would be better dealt with by cautions or by restorative justice. A woman was in court in Stevenage for swearing at police officers, while a 19 year old was in Ipswich over an unpaid fine for a defective light on a moped.
2) Defendants and witnesses frequently don’t turn up. In Northampton a man had been arrested for the theft of a mail bag. He missed his court appearance because he didn’t get the letter – he was homeless. He arrived in court ten days later having been arrested on “warrant”. In Ipswich most of a morning “was spent in discussions between the Bench, Crown Prosecution Service and the defendant about whether two witnesses, having been summonsed to appear, would turn up”. They didn’t and the prosecution withdrew the charge.
3) Many cases seem to take an inordinate amount of time. The case of a man accused of assault by beating (which usually means hitting) was listed in Stevenage for the 18th time. In Northampton a man was up for sentencing, also for assault by beating – he had thrown a purse at his girlfriend in February and hit her on the legs. Given that he had immediately pleaded guilty, its hard to understand why his sentence was 7 months later.
4) Despite delays, there seems to be nothing happening in courts a surprising amount of the time.
Does the BBC coverage show a court system collapsing? No. On its knees? Maybe.