Fair report card for Crown Court system
Far from the popular perception of a criminal justice system in disarray and turmoil, a comprehensive study of the Crown Courts has shown users to be relatively content with the procedures and systems.
The 'Crown Court study', released this week, was conducted for the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which is due to report next week.
Co-authored by Professor Michael Zander of the law department of the London School of Economics and Paul Henderson of the Home Office, the report finds that for the most part lawyers, judges and laypeople are satisfied with the Crown Court system. In total, more than 3000 cases drawn from all Crown Courts in the last fortnight of February 1992 were analysed.
What controversy there is comes over acquittals. The police found nearly 50% of acquittals 'surprising' compared with 25% of judges, and between 10% and 14% of defence lawyers.
Also causing some concern is the question of disclosure. Some 23% of defence barristers and 18% of defence solicitors in contested cases felt the prosecution had not disclosed all unused material in specific cases.
But even the long-running tension between solicitors and barristers over returned briefs seems to be less problematic than previously assumed. While the phenomenon is certainly prevalent -- 48% of solicitors questioned over cases on a specific day said the barrister at the trial was not the one instructed originally -- returned briefs are not generally regarded as having a detrimental effect on a defendant's case.
In 53% of the cases, solicitors said that having the original barrister would not have enhanced the defendant's case. Of the 17% who maintained it would have been better to have the original barrister, only one fifth said it would have made an actual difference to the outcome of the case. In fact, only eight of the 372 solicitors who said the brief had been returned thought that not having the original barrister was actually detrimental to the defendant's case.
Even in cases of very short notice of a returned brief, solicitors generally thought little difference was made to the outcome on the defendant. In 84% of the cases, solicitors said they had sufficient time to find a suitable replacement barrister and in 91% of the cases, solicitors said that the substitute counsel was able to prepare adequately.
Overall, defence solicitors found the work of defence barristers, whether original counsel or a replacement, to be of high quality. Nearly 70% classified the work as very good, while another 24% described it as good.
Marks were not so high when the positions were reversed, although the results are by no means poor. Only 37% of barristers described the work of solicitors as very good with another 37% labelling it simply as good. Those barristers who were critical blamed solicitors for supplying inadequate instructions, 'skimpy' witness statements, a failure to act on counsel's advice regarding a need for expert reports and muddled presentation of documents.
Defendants themselves, according to the study, were generally pleased with the work of their solicitors. About 83% described it as 'good' or 'very good' and, surprisingly, even 69% of those who had been convicted said the solicitor's work fell into one of those two upper categories.
-- 'Crown Cou rt study', Royal Commission on Criminal Justice research study number 19, HMSO, £30.
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