Cuts to Gloucester Crown court sitting days called ‘catastrophic’ by barrister

The Leader of the Western Circuit, Kate Brunner QC, has compiled a report showing how justice is being denied to users of the criminal justice system in Gloucestershire.

The report, ‘This Doesn’t Look Like Justice’, outlines the national problem: cuts to court sitting days and how this reduction in operating hours has led to complainants abandoning trials, cases being delayed and problems listing appeals.

The authors of the report carried out a detailed survey at Gloucester Crown Court in November and December 2019. The results demonstrate how poorly the criminal justice system is serving residents and recommends an urgent increase in the number of court sitting days.

This follows cuts made by the Ministry of Justice to the number of days courts are allowed to open. Sitting days in Crown Courts have been cut by 15% in the last year alone.

The reduced time has also affected the efficiency of other hearings, particularly appeals. A court staff member at a small court centre in Gloucester reported:

“We are no longer in a position to easily list appeals. We used to list within 6-8 weeks, we are now listing in approx. 4-5 months.”

The impact has been described as ‘catastrophic’ by a barrister who regularly works in small court centre on the Western Circuit.

“The effect of the reduction in sitting days in Gloucester has been catastrophic. Bail trials are routinely being listed 5, 6, or 7 months after a plea and trial preparation hearing.”

“This is very typical of the direction of travel at the moment – longer and longer delays as courtrooms sit idle.”

Delays are not just impacting victims. The effect on witnesses of waiting longer and longer before they provide evidence is likely to increase their anxiety and disengagement, leading to more prosecutions failing, the report suggests.

The report found that a typical case before Gloucester Crown court in September 2015 at the stage of pre-trial hearing would have to wait until December 2015 before the trial could be heard by the court. The same typical case in September 2019 would have to wait until the following April 2020.

One of the ways in which busy courts are trying to stretch resources is by moving the cases to other courts or court centres, however this often requires counsel and witnesses to travel significant distances to another venue.

One example recounts a court change from Gloucester to Salisbury, over 75 miles away.

“The case had originally been listed in Gloucester Crown Court. However, it was not effective on that day because it was heavily over listed. The case had to be adjourned and the only available court was Salisbury.”

“This was a tremendous inconvenience. When the case was dealt with, it was not effective because the prison had sent the prisoner to Gloucester and could not get him to Salisbury.”

In Gloucester, the resident judge has announced that when giving a trial date for a custody case within the custody time limit, there is a risk that it will have to move to another court.

“A three week trial of mine was moved from Gloucester to Bristol, requiring other trials which had already been listed in Bristol to be vacated.”

Where a two court centre has been reduced to a single court set up, as has happened in Gloucester, the effect of fewer sitting days is exacerbated. The same effect occurs when a three court centre is restricted to sitting two courts. This applies to Exeter Crown Court where sitting days are down 25%, which amounts to 200 days in three years.

The report concludes that the issues raised are of national concern as courtrooms are closed across the country. To combat problems, the ‘This Doesn’t Look like Justice’ report has made six important recommendations.

1- Sitting days should be increased substantially and urgently.

2- Two-court centres should remain two-court centres.

3- The Ministry of Justice should publish the current listing delay for trials across all courts.

4- The calculation of sitting days should not be based on old statistics, or on receipts alone. The calculation should take into account the current listing delay for trials.

5- Greater weight should be placed on the views of the Resident Judges and listing officers who know the problems at their courts caused by closed courtrooms.

6- The calculation of court sitting days should take into account the effect on the ground of reductions in sitting days on all court users.  

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