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which collapse on the day they are due to be heard because the defendant decides to plead guilty, or the case is withdrawn for other reasons.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.

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