The lord chancellor has hit back at the Criminal Bar Association's charge that recorders are sitting fewer days because of budget cuts - saying the true reason is that the number of Crown court cases has fallen.
David Gauke was responding to MPs who demanded answers over letters sent to recorders reportedly telling them there would be 'limited opportunities' to hear Crown court cases due to 'severe budgetary constraints'.
CBA chair Chris Henley QC said Crown court capacity was being 'artificially squeezed' by government policy, with courtrooms across the country now 'dark' because the government refuses to fund them. 'This is why over and over again you are being hit by fixed trials taken out at the last minute and re-fixed months down the line.'
However Gauke told the House of Commons justice committee's chair, Bob Neill, that he and his department 'do not recognise the language used by the Criminal Bar Association'. He said presiding judges in the western circuit and London/south east circuit wrote to recorders last summer 'setting out the position for Crown sitting days and encouraging recorders to plan ahead and book their sitting days'.
The letters 'made clear that the intention is to ensure recorders are deployed as effectively and fairly as possible. Of course, we do not expect to penalise recorders who do not sit their "minimum" number of days through no fault of their own'.
Gauke said the number of Crown court sitting days is decided in light of how much work the court has. 'The number of sittings in the Crown court has therefore reduced as the number of cases has gone down in recent years. The most recent published statistics show that the number of outstanding cases in the Crown court (and magistrates' courts) continues to fall, and that average wait time for Crown court defendants is the lowest since 2014,' he added.
This week the criminal bar revealed that a training day organised by circuits that takes places every year for recorders to learn from their senior colleagues has been scrapped. The judiciary said that following a major training review by the Judicial College fee-paid judges now receive more 'continuation training' so the training days 'have been discontinued and the funds redistributed'.