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which collapse on the day they are due to be heard because the defendant decides to plead guilty, or the case is withdrawn for other reasons.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

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Development Manager (District Heating)

£55000 Per Annum plus company car and bonus scheme: The Green Recruitment Comp...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn