Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Step in the Right Direction

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that my opinion of the management of Her Majesty's Courts Service stops well short of adulation. Putting the Government's endless and damaging legal tinkerings on one side, the amalgamation of the courts under HMCS is throwing up all kinds of problems that will inevitably take time to fix. One bit of good news, in my area at least, is that a concerted effort by managers lawyers and magistrates has cut the delay in bringing cases to trial by something like two months, and that is something to be proud of.

There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. As time passes witnesses' memories fade, or they lose interest in coming to court. There are scores of things that can delay a trial, including police and CPS failures, absence of defendants or of witnesses (for either side). Courts now insist on both sides taking ownership of the management of their case, and the paperwork makes it clear where the problems have arisen. We have a case progression officer, and we sit a case progression court (run by a clerk under delegated powers) every week. Defendants are warned when a case is set down for trial that if they fail to attend the case may go ahead in their absence - and they do. Magistrates are being much more robust that we used to be about applications for adjournments. The old comfy three-week delays while prosecution and defence shuffled paper in a leisurely manner has gone, and in my court they have to argue hard to get so much as a week.

Not long ago we were faced with an application for a three week adjournment. "Why do you need so long?" I asked. "Well, sir, we need to view the CCTV evidence, which we do not yet have in our possession and I need to apply for legal aid." "Where is the tape?" (CPS)"At the police station sir." "How long is it?" "Ten minutes sir." "Right. It is now twenty past ten. The police station is a short step away. We will put this case back while you walk across and view the tape. Our police liaison officer will make a phone call now." I glance at the usher who doesn't need to be asked to fetch the PLO. "As for Legal Aid, hand it in to the office now and it will be dealt with before you get back from the police station." Lawyer looks set to argue, but thinks better of it.

Result:- tape clearly shows the crime, defendant and lawyer come back at 12.30 and a guilty plea is entered. We have a probation officer available, so we bail the defendant over the lunch break to allow a pre-sentence report to be prepared. Report placed before the court at 3.15, defence mitigates, sentence (community penalty) passed at about 3.35. Job done.

To be fair, we were a bit lucky, because plenty could have gone wrong, but it didn't, and we concluded the case in less than a single court day. That, we hope, is the way it's going to be in future, more often than not.

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