The system stands accused

With courts starting at 10am and clocking off by teatime, are we being well served? Grania Langdon-Down reports. Below: a shocked juror speaks out about her experience

Administering the criminal and civil justice system in England and Wales is an immense task. About 30,000 magistrates sitting at 600 magistrates' courts deal with about 1.39 million defendants a year. More than 1,600 circuit judges, recorders and assistant recorders deal with the more serious charges against 125,320 defendants appearing in 65 Crown Court centres run by 2,259 court staff.

At the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, there are 95 courtrooms, 190 members of the judiciary and nearly 800 court staff. There are about 16,000 hearings listed every year across the different divisions. Cases may take months to come to court and the impression for many jurors and witnesses may be of time spent sitting around waiting for something to happen. However, court administrators argue that longer court sittings would not necessarily speed up the system.

A snapshot of life in a busy court building illustrates the difficulties involved in keeping justice flowing. Manchester magistrates' court is one of the busiest in the country, with about 100,000 defendants passing through its 22 courts a year. Of the 9,000 cases heard a month, about half are completed within the month. It has about 370 lay magistrates, three stipendiaries and 200 court staff.

The main problems facing the court administrators are adjournments - running at about 35 per cent of listed cases - and "cracked" trials, which collapse on the day they are due to be heard because the defendant decides to plead guilty, or the case is withdrawn for other reasons.

David Scanlan, deputy clerk to the justices, says cracked trials are a national problem. "It used to happen in about 45 per cent of cases but we have cut the rate down to about 30 per cent by introducing pre-trial reviews.

"We have to try to make sure there is sufficient work to make it worthwhile running the courts. But if you overlist, you end up dragging people down here for aborted hearings.

"It is not advisable for courts to go on sitting too long in the afternoon or decisions could appear to be rushed as time runs on. Magistrates are also committed to a considerable amount of training in the evenings and weekends."

The Old Bailey in London hears about 1,200 cases a year in its 20 courts, which each cost about about pounds 10,000 a day to run. There are 13 permanent judges and a court staff of 80.

About a third of the cases are guilty pleas, with the remainder going to trial about 16 weeks after committal.

Julian Owen, chief clerk at the Central Criminal Court, says the courts start with about 150 jurors in every Monday. Most serve for two weeks, but there will always be a few long cases, like the Maxwell trial, which ran for more than eight months.

"The major problem is trials not starting on time. About 40 per cent of our trials do not start on the appointed day," Mr Owen says. "There can be myriad reasons - a witness falling sick, last-minute legal argument, or a sudden change of plea to guilty.

"I do not think it would speed things up to have longer sittings. The listing of cases already takes very fine judgement. It is such a fluid situation from day to day that you dare not get rid of jurors just in case something changes, so there is, inevitably, a lot of hanging around."

Mr Owen says judges and counsel have a lot of work to do before and after court sittings. "There is also a limit to the concentration span of jurors."

The public perception may be that the country's most senior judges have an easy life, with short days and two months off in the summer. But Master McKenzie QC, Registrar of Criminal Appeals, says that image is far from the truth.

"The public may think they just swan in at 10am and leave at 4pm. But they work much longer hours than that, reading case papers, looking up case law, writing up judgments and dealing with correspondence," he says.

He points out that the 8,000 applications for leave to appeal submitted every year are considered by single judges in their own time. "They are not permitted time out of court to do it," he says.

Mr McKenzie says that over the past two years, the waiting time for an appeal against conviction has been reduced from 15 and a half months to just over eight months. Appeals against sentence are now heard within five months, down from more than eight months. "This was achieved by a number of measures, including the introduction of a tight schedule for preparing cases for court, the appointment of extra judges and the sheer hard work of the Judiciary and Criminal Appeal Office staff alike," he says.

The one area that does have a growing backlog is in the Court of Appeal's Civil Division. The average wait is about 10 months and by January this year there were 1,675 outstanding cases.

The Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, has called for more judges to ease the problem.

Graham Calvett, the administrator of the Royal Courts of Justice, says: "If an urgent civil appeal comes in, it can be heard within six weeks. But if a case involves a complicated Chancery matter, it can take two or three years to be heard. However, delays are often because the parties are not ready."

He says the long summer vacation is the only time vital maintenance can be carried out in the building. Last summer, work went on in more than three quarters of the courts, but a considerable number of cases were still heard.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference