Justice delayed: Administrative problems delay serious trials

 (Image: Shutterstock Justice)

On July 28 the Bureau published the results of its investigation into budget cuts and the criminal justice system. Our research – which was reported in the Observer – showed the impact of budget cuts on state prosecutors and the staff in criminal courts. It showed that cuts in staffing and resources were in come cases the reason for trials being abandoned and then re-held at a later date. The following two cases are examples of this happening.

‘Appalling delays’
Last week a senior judge at Leicester crown court complained about the impact of budget cuts on his court, after being forced to adjourn a sex assault trial for eight months.

Resident judge Michael Pert QC was to preside over a sexual assault trial which was due to begin on Monday July 22. But at the last minute the trial was rescheduled. Judge Pert told the defendant, “The pressure under which this court is operating and the volume of work we’re expected to do with reduced resources means I have to set your trial down for March 26 next year.”

‘Many people, whether they’re involved in this case or not, would regard such a delay in a case of this gravity as appalling and I wouldn’t seek to dissuade them. I have no choice in the matter,” he added.

The defendant had pled not guilty and was released on bail.

The case was covered in the local media and HMCTS soon found an earlier slot, rescheduling the trial for September.

‘That’s just one case that was in the media,’ said Paul Prior, barrister for the defendant, ‘it has not stopped a considerable increase in other trials involving serious sexual or violent offences being adjourned. In respect of the smaller cases there is even less chance of them being heard. There are some cases at Leicester that are over 18 months old. ‘

Leicester court has six court rooms, but budget cuts mean only four are being used, according to the Leicester Mercury. One solicitor, talking to the local paper, explained that of his last 15 fixed-date trials, 14 had been pulled because of a lack of court time.

In this case the trial was paused and picked up again at a later date. However research by the Bureau found that many trials in Leicester crown court fail to such an extent that they need to be restarted. In some instances this is caused by basic administrative problems.

 Many people … would regard such a delay in a case of this gravity as appalling’

Judge Michael Pert QC 

Last year the court dealt with 2,165 trials, of which 131 were “ineffective” – that is, had to be stopped and re-started at a later date. Trials can be ineffective for a variety of reasons – the prosecutor of defence not being ready, or the judge being ill- but of these, 53 trials fell through due to administration errors. These included equipment failure and rooms being doubled booked and represents a rise of 3% from 2011.

Related article: Trials failing due to increased basic administrative errors in courts

Historic rape case
Earlier this year in Reading crown court a rape trial was faced with a series of administrative and procedural set backs.

The complainant was a 19-year-old woman who alleged she had suffered multiple counts of rape and sexual assault over three years, starting when she was 13. The girl had spoken to her mother at the time, but had decided not to act on her allegations. Then, a few months ago she sat down to watch a film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She said the film’s scenes of sexual assault had brought everything flooding back, and she took her allegations to the police.

The trial was originally due to last five days, but ended up taking twice that time, and might have fallen through altogether.

On the first day of the trial Thames Valley police sent an officer to the proceedings who arrived at the court with boxes full of materials, which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers needed to sift through, in order to disclose any relevant materials to the defence. The process took hours, meanwhile the judge and jury had to sit and wait.

The delays meant that the complainant started her evidence on the Tuesday afternoon and had to come back the next day for cross examination- rather than getting the whole ordeal over in one sitting.

The next morning, when she returned, the problems continued. The court management team had listed another case into the judge’s workload meaning he had to go and deal with that. Once back in the court room the court equipment which records proceedings, stopped working.

Chistopher Amis, a lawyer with 22 years’ experience, was the prosecuting barrister for the trial. ‘The jury was sent out while the court clerk went racing around trying to fix the problem,’ he said. Problems with the recording equipment are now a frequent occurrence, since the court moved to new technology, according to Amis.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) rolled out a new digital court recording system in all 97 Crown Courts between September 2011 and March 2012. The new system means HMCTS no longer uses loggers and stenographers, employed by private companies, to transcribe proceedings. The estimated saving of removing these roles was £5m per annum.

By the time the recording equipment was ready the video-link equipment needed to allow the complainant to give her evidence outside the court room, was being used elsewhere. ‘It could have been worse,’ Amis said. In a previous rape case he prosecuted in the court the video-link equipment broke down for half a day.

The defendant in the recent case was eventually found not guilty.

In the first quarter of this year 24% of all trials heard at Reading were deemed ineffective, ranking it the country’s third worst performing court when measured by efficiency.

Last year 23 of the trials heard in Reading, (more than 4% of the total), had to be stopped and re-started because of basic administrative problems.

HMCTS denied that the problems were due to budget cuts and said ‘The case referred to was not delayed as a result of resource issues but for a variety of reasons including the previous case over-running, time requested by counsel to deal with legal issues and a late request for the use of the video link facilities. Staff will deal with unscheduled changes as efficiently as possible in order to avoid delays.’

The worse performing courts in England and Wales

The number of recorded ineffective failed trials across all Crown courts in England and Wales has remained pretty consistent over the past few years. Last year they accounted for 14% of all trials committed, a figure virtually the same as the year before.

 But what government figures show is a rise in the number of trials failing specifically because of administrative reasons, such as failures with equipment and accommodation. Trials failing for such reasons have risen by nearly a third since 2009.

It is only in the past 18 months that the government has published figures for individual courts. The following table shows how courts around the country compare. It shows the courts with the highest number of ineffective trials as a percentage of all cases committed to trial.

The following table compares the first quarter of this year with the same quarter in 2012.

Court  Q1 2013 Q1 2012
Inner London Crown Court 26% 19%
Taunton Crown Court 26% 14%
Knutsford Crown Court 25% 25%
Lancaster Crown Court 25% 17%
Reading Crown Court 24% 20%
Worcester Combined Court 24% 9%
Central Criminal Court 23% 19%

Worcester Combined Court has seen a marked increase in the percentage of ineffective trials, from 9% to 24% comparing the first quarter of 2012 and 2013. However the actual number of ineffective trials is low: there were 18 in the first quarter of this year, and 10 in the first quarter of the last. The main reason for this increase is workload: trials that are scheduled are not being started on time because other trials run over.

When asked about Worcester court a spokesperson from HMCTS said, ‘There are a number of reasons why a case might not go ahead on the day. These include other cases over-running or other causes for there being insufficient court time, prosecution or defence witnesses being absent, the defendant not attending when required and either the prosecution or defence not being ready to proceed.

‘HMCTS keeps resources under review and works closely with the judiciary and criminal justice partners to do everything possible to ensure that cases go ahead on the scheduled day.’

Leicester crown court is improving. It saw 22% of all trials fail as ineffective in the first quarter of 2013, compared with 32% in the same quarter of 2012.