A Crown court judge has blamed ’chronic underfunding’ of the criminal justice system for delays, as he refused to extend the custody time limit for a defendant whose barrister is on strike. The ruling could be repeated in the cases of thousands of defendants in custody, as the backlog of Crown court cases remains around 60,000 and indefinite, all-out strike action by criminal barristers began this week.
Sitting at Bristol Crown Court, Peter Blair QC, the recorder of Bristol, refused a prosecution application to extend custody limits, which expire on 8 September, in a ’completely routine’ two-day case.
The defendant, known only as WD due to reporting restrictions, pleaded not guilty to three allegations concerning events in March.
The judge said: ’The state has had many, many months in which to resolve the current dispute over the requisite level of remuneration to pay in order to attract the services of barristers to act on behalf of people benefitting from [legal aid].’
Blair stressed that the prosecution has acted with all due diligence and expedition, but said he was not persuaded that there was a ’good and sufficient cause’ to extend the custody time limits after the defence barrister informed the court that she would not be attending last week’s planned trial due to the protest action over legal air rates.
Blair said: ’On the one hand the state demands trials to commence within an applicable custody time limit, and on the other it holds the purse strings for remunerating those who are required under our rule of law to be provided with advocacy services.’
He said: ’Today’s predicament arises precisely because of the chronic and predictable consequences of long term underfunding. The unavailability of representation for the defendant today has arisen because of a persistent and predictable background feature of publicly funded criminal litigation.’
The judge blamed the delays to criminal trials on the backlog of criminal cases that has built up by the government’s restrictions on the number of days that judges could sit. Prior to the pandemic, he said, the backlog of cases ’could have been driven down lower, if we had been permitted to do so, by sitting more court days’.