Recorders are being told there will be 'limited opportunities' for them to hear Crown court cases, the Criminal Bar Association's chief has said, highlighting the chaos that last-minute listings changes are causing for victims and witnesses.
In his latest damning update on the problems of the justice system, Chris Henley QC said the reason given to recorders who will struggle to complete the mandatory number of sitting days is 'severe budgetary constraints'.
Henley said: 'What this means in hard reality is that the capacity in the Crown court is being artificially squeezed by MoJ policy. Across the country courtrooms are now "dark", not because there isn’t work to occupy them, but 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.'
Henley said a case involving an alleged knife point robbery on a taxi driver fixed in July last year, to be tried on 22 January, was taken out of the list at 4pm the previous day and has now been re-fixed for 19 August, a 'nice family friendly date for al the parties'.
At one court centre last week, two fixed-date trials were listed as 'floaters'. However, Henley said there were no prospect of the trials being reached, given how 'crammed' the other open courts were while five sat 'dark and empty'. In one of the trials, the victim flew in from India. In the other, the witness had travelled from Italy.
Henley said: 'You gear yourself and make contingency plans up for a potentially life-changing event, or you are about to face court to have your voice heard, you are dreadfully nervous, friends and family rally round, perhaps they have had to arrange to take time off work, or organise childcare, to support you and then what happens, the night before, unforgivably, the system, probably via the solicitor or a police officer, says it’s now being adjourned, and for months. Of course, there’s no compensation or apology.
'Will the witnesses be prepared to do it again, the court is likely to be tough on them if they refuse, will the victim or complainant lose faith, and decide it's better to draw a line and withdraw, as many do? But hey, if they do, another case can be chalked off.'
The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.