The criminal bar has welcomed the thousands of extra Crown court sitting days announced by the government this week but says it is not even close to what is needed.
The Ministry of Justice announced that it will increase the allocation of Crown court sitting days for the first half of 2020/21 by 4,700 to a minimum of 87,000. ‘It will help ensure we serve justice in a timely fashion', the department said.
Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, said: '[This] means we can start listing at that higher level now for things going into lists from April. Sitting days are kept under constant review - even though outstanding cases and waiting times are historically low, we know we have been starting to list further into the future than we’d like, and we also know what that means for defendants, complainants and witnesses. So being able to put more days in for next year now will make a real difference.'
The Criminal Bar Association, which has been highlighting the impact of idle courts, said: 'But to place it in context, it’s still 10,000 fewer than 2019 and a staggering fewer than 2015. Nowhere near what is needed.'
In her latest weekly update, CBA chair Caroline Goodwin QC said: 'The extra 4,500 days announced for 2020/21 to counter delays is as I say welcome but not enough. We are not even back where we started. We have seen a steady decline since 2015. We are 27,000 sitting days down from 2015/2016. The consequences are dramatic.
'There has to be a better way of calculating the sitting days requirements. Working on figures that are out of date is utterly hopeless; we end up in the situation we have all experienced; not enough days, courts closed and important sensitive cases being kicked into the long grass. No wonder there is an increased attrition rate amongst complainants. Why on earth is it deemed acceptable that there should be such a wait?'
Crown court sitting day allocations have fallen from 97,400 in 2018/19 to 82,300 in 2019/20.
A report by Kate Brunner QC, leader of the Western Circuit, highlighted the 'stark' effect at local level. The report stated that witnesses in some courts were waiting almost two years after the alleged offence before they gave evidence, trial adjournments are at a record high, and an increasing number of trials are being adjourned or moved to other courts, sometimes up to 100 miles away, at the last minute.
The report notes that statistics published by the ministry are months old. Last summer, criminal barrister Jonathan Dunne, of KCH Garden Square in Leicester, began real-time compiling data to highlight the number of courtrooms sitting empty on any given day. A Twitter account, @idlecourts, was set up where practitioners can report empty rooms.