Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It's Chaos Out There

Here is the text of a Sunday Mirror article looking at the sad state of affairs in our Magistrates Courts:

The Sunday Mirror investigates "chaos in our magistrates' courts" which costs £173m a year. It warns "BRITISH justice is in danger of collapse - as our criminal courts descend into farce."

One in three magistrates' court cases fail to go ahead because of needless adjournments, missing files and time-wasting, a Sunday Mirror investigation has revealed.

We sat in court and witnessed a catalogue of blunders and delays. Scarcely more than 40 per cent of cases reach a satisfactory conclusion on the day they are listed. Because of the chaos many defendants don't bother turning up, knowing that amid the confusion it may take the system weeks to catch up with them.

Our findings come weeks after a National Audit Office survey revealed £173million was wasted last year on trials and hearings in magistrates' courts. Sitting in three courts last week, we witnessed how:

One defendant phoned the court to say she could not appear on a shoplifting charge because she was off on holiday to Thailand.

A thief who had broken the terms of his jail parole laughed as he was freed from court and told to give himself up to police.

A bored solicitor started planning her holiday wardrobe as she waited hours to ask for a simple adjournment.

Take the case at Dartford Magistrates' Court in Kent of Simon Hull, a 20-year-old criminal let out of jail early on condition he behaved.

But he was caught damaging and stealing items from a car. All his defence said was that he was in "a sorry state with alcohol and drug problems".

You might think he would be sent straight back to jail. But it was explained to him that a warrant would be issued for his arrest. He was told he could go to a police station to be arrested or wait for police to catch him. He asked: "So I have to get myself arrested?" The court clerk said: "Yes. The word 'daft' comes to mind."

Hull responded: "I've never heard something so stupid in all my life." He added, to laughter: "I'll do it Sunday. I'll enjoy my weekend then I'll give myself up."

We witnessed another example of the disdain in which our courts are held in Staines, Middlesex. Jessica Gibbs, 24, had phoned the court the day before she was due to appear on a shoplifting charge to say she couldn't make it because she was going on holiday to Thailand.

When she did finally appear she admitted the offence, claiming she stole £500 worth of computer games from a newsagents because she owed her rent. Magistrates' chairman Mrs Vicky Royce told her: "Your holiday fits a little oddly with you saying you could not pay your rent arrears."

Gibbs said the holiday had been a gift from her family. When asked if her family were prepared to help with the rent, she replied: "No, they wasn't."

Gibbs was ordered to carry out 60 hours of community service and pay £50 costs. The cost of wasted court time was estimated at £687, according to figures from the National Audit Office.

Back in Dartford, the court was due to hear a case against a 17-year-old youth charged with a string of offences. The woman defence solicitor was so bored she began to draw up a list of all the clothes she needed for a holiday she was about to go on.

When she finally got the chance to put her case she said her client was too ill to attend court. She was finally able to leave after three hours.

A spokesman for the National Audit Office said of the £173million wasted last year in magistrates courts, nearly £24million was due to the Crown Prosecution Service. "The defence is responsible for more than half, while the CPS and the police are responsible for just over a fifth," he added.

It is calculated that 28 per cent of all pre-trial hearings in magistrates' courts do not go ahead on the scheduled day.

Tory MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "The innocent are kept in custody longer than necessary. And some guilty people must be getting away with their crimes."

A spokeswoman for the CPS acknowledged there were too many "ineffective hearings" but said it was "taking action".

EXHIBIT 1

28 per cent of all pre-trial hearings in magistrates' courts do not go ahead on time

EXHIBIT 2

Girl charged with shoplifting doesn't turn up because she's on holiday in Thailand

EXHIBIT 3

A thief who broke his bail terms laughs when he's told it's up to him to hand himself in to cops

EXHIBIT 4

A man appeared twice, costing thousands, for stealing £15 of bacon from a Sainsbury's store

Case 1: Staines

THERE were many mutterings of discontent during the frequent adjournments at Staines court.

Lawyers were overheard complaining to each other - and one said: "Magistrates always slow things down."

A defence solicitor added: "One day they retired seven times, on a matter a two-year-old child could have decided on."

The same lawyer - looking at a tall stack of traffic offence paperwork - said: "We will never get through that. It's ridiculous.

"There should be a special clerk at the police station to deal with that. There is no need for them to come to magistrates court."

Lawyers also expressed frustration at two cases that had to be adjourned because the police and court staff did not know where the defendants lived.

In the first, a doctor had been due to answer a charge of driving through a red light. Summonses had been issued to three different addresses and her case had already been adjourned to see if any had reached her.

None had - and the case was put off again, this time until April 5.

In the second, a man had been summoned to appear charged with driving at 70mph in a 50mph zone on the A3 at Esher, Surrey.

The prosecutor said: "There have been various attempts to serve this notice.

"If he can't be found then we can't continue with this prosecution." The case was adjourned until April 11.

Another case was also adjourned because the Probation Service computer system had failed.

Over two days, 62 cases came before the courts. Only 44 were heard through to the end.

Cases had to be dropped because no one could find the defendants

Case 2: Manchester

A CROWN Prosecution Service lawyer faced the wrath of a judge over delays at Manchester Magistrates' Court.

It happened when Alisha Kaur appeared before District Judge Alan Berg for the second time on charges of theft - and for the second time her CPS solicitor did not have the file.

The judge described it as a "terrible situation" and adjourned for 10 minutes to see if the file could be found.

Prosecutor Martin Fleming returned to say the file was still being held by the police, even though he had sent several memos asking for it. Judge Berg said: "I've got a bee in my bonnet about this Mr Fleming, because this isn't a unique set of circumstances' it's happening daily. I'm at the end of my tether. You say you keep sending the police memorandums but they don't seem to be achieving anything, they just ignore them don't they? It's appalling."

Finally he said: "I want an explanation from you next time this case appears as to why these papers have taken so long to arrive and an explanation from the officer involved as well.

"This is the second time we've heard this case and we're no further forward. If you do not have the papers next time I may well have to let the matter proceed anyway." The next day CPS prosecutor Alison Cartmel faced the judge's wrath when it was realised files were missing in four of the 21 cases due to be heard.

The judge told her: "Someone needs to tighten up the system.

"Defence solicitors are waiting here to have their cases heard and all you have to offer is that you haven't got the file."

On Thursday, a man appeared in court for the second time...for stealing £15 worth of bacon. Wayne Moore, who also admitted stealing £37.05 worth of goods from Sainsbury's, was ordered to pay the money back at £10 a fortnight.

The case will have cost hundreds of pounds to take to court.

On Friday, 21 cases were heard - and 10 had to be adjourned. Among them was that of Pole Marcin Wawrzyniak, who was charged with offences including drink driving.

As he barely speaks English, the judge was forced to order an adjournment until an interpreter is found.

21 cases were due to be heard.. but 10 had to be put back to another day

Case 3: Dartford

JUST four defendants were due to have their cases heard in the Monday morning session at Dartford Magistrates Court, Kent.

But the court clerk told the magistrates NONE could go ahead. One defendant did not have a solicitor present.

Another phoned to say their transport had broken down. A third failed to turn up - and their solicitor couldn't find them.

The last said he did not want a solicitor, then changed his mind...and one could not be found. Typical was the case of Ryan James, charged with assault causing actual bodily harm. He did not turn up and when his solicitor tried his mobile a voice on the other end said he bought the phone from James a week ago. The magistrates had no option but to abandon the morning session.

It was a frustrating day as the court heard only six cases when it did finally swing into action in the afternoon.

Tuesday was more productive, with 18 cases heard, but many dragged on and the court rose an hour late at 5pm.

One prosecutor said: "I have lost the will to live". At the same time, a despairing social worker said: "We will be here all night."

Wednesday was another late start because none of the defendants turned up. In the afternoon. just nine cases were heard. On Thursday it emerged the prosecution has lost yet another file - and a breach of the peace case which had already been adjourned twice was thrown out.

The cases dealt with on Friday included a Slovakian man charged with a sex attack who needed an interpreter.

Chair of the bench Elizabeth Brown asked the clerk why the interpreter had been awarded more than £100 in fees for less than 20 minutes work.

She was told interpreters can charge for three hours work - even if their involvement only three minutes.

In another case, Christopher Walker, 21, of Northfleet, Kent, was being held in custody and magistrates had to rule whether to grant him bail on two charges - actual bodily harm and attempted criminal damage.

The case was delayed for nearly 20 minutes because the prosecutor did not have details of the attempted criminal damage charge.

The prosecutor had to wait for his office to fax the papers through before Walker was finally granted bail.

Complete morning wasted when NO cases actually make it into court.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can I say that I notice that in all the cases mentioned the defence solicitor was not at fault?
I notice that the generic 'the defence" is used when giving numbers of adjournments caused by "the defence." This will give the public the impression that it is defence lawyers who cause those delays. We should make it plain that there is a distinction between the lawyers and say their clients. This might make it clearer to the public that we do not cause anything like the number of abortive hearings that the police and CPS do.

Gavin said...

I agree with you. Defence solicitors should be aware these days that the perception the public has of them is not particularly good and we should not allow our reputation to be brought down by these fairly common reports of waste.

Tony said...

In my (admittedly limited) experience from the public gallery (some of which I've written up here), the prosecution are responsible for at least 75% of the delays. They in turn tend to be blame most of this on the police, or probation service. If you rule out the cases where the defendant just doesn't turn up and a bench warrant has to be issued, it's closer to 100%. The only cases I've seen where the defence "causes" the delay is where they haven't been supplied information they requested from the prosecution ...

Anonymous said...

I was at the Magistrates Court today with only the one matter in the morning. The advance information was not available until 11.30. The prosecutor was not in a position to deal with the case until gone 12 noon. I had been there since 9.20 am hoping to get the matter on as quickly as possible. Sadly this was not a one-off and I experience this type of time wastage on a daily basis.