JusticeWatch: Number of collapsed criminal cases ‘almost doubled’ in four years

Collapsing cases
The number of collapsed criminal cases has ‘almost doubled in four years’, reported The Times (here). Figures from the CPS showed that on average last year about two criminal cases a day were dropped because of delays in bringing them to court or an abuse of process. ‘The rising number of collapsed cases is adding to concerns that budget cuts at the CPS are taking their toll and potentially allowing some offenders who have committed serious crimes to walk free, while risking miscarriages of justice for those wrongly charged,’ it reported.

According to figures disclosed after a freedom of information request, 1,078 cases were discontinued because of failures in disclosure during the first nine months of last year, up from 567 in the whole of 2014. Police and prosecutors have a legal obligation to disclose any material that the prosecution will not use when the case comes to trial and evidence that may assist a defendant’s legal team.

It was also reported that there were 535 prosecutions discontinued because of delays or abuse of process in the first nine months of last year, which gives 714 if that rate continued for the whole year, compared with 631 cases in 2014, up 13 per cent.

The CPS budget was ‘at least 30% lower than it was in 2010’. ‘Those cuts coincided with an increase in digital evidence in criminal cases linked to the growing use of electronic communication devices,’ it continued. ‘Lawyers on the front line of the criminal courts said the CPS figures on disclosure and delay were not surprising, but highlighted a dangerous failure in the system nonetheless.’

‘Disclosure of unused material in criminal cases is a core justice duty. The government has a constitutional and moral duty to ensure that there is sufficient funding across the system to ensure a good and proper disclosure regime. This starts at the grass roots, from the commencement of an investigation, with sufficient and appropriately trained police officers, to source, locate and retrieve material relevant to an inquiry.’
Caroline Goodwin, QC, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association

Judges have rights too
A judge who says she was bullied and had a breakdown after speaking out about government cuts has won a landmark appeal at the Supreme Court – according to the BBC News. The court ruled Warrington District Judge Claire Gilham could be classified as a ‘worker’ and was therefore entitled to whistleblowing protection. She can now have her case heard at an employment tribunal.

‘Winning is a great relief after these seven long years,’ Judge Gilham said. ‘Ethically I always knew that my point was right: that judges should have human rights protections. You can’t have justice without independent and unafraid judges, and if judges can’t speak out to protect the court system, then justice suffers and the people caught up in the system suffer too.’

It was reported that she had raised several matters with her senior court staff including the lack of secure court rooms, a severely increased workload and administrative failures following major cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget from 2010.

The judge claimed that as a result of her complaints, she was seriously bullied, ignored and undermined.

Child contact centre referrals
Legal aid cuts have ‘fuelled a surge in the number of separating parents without solicitors making self-referrals to child contact centres to make their situation less stressful’ – also in the Gazette.

‘Figures published this week by the National Association of Child Contact Centres shows that self-referrals from parents have jumped from 3.7% of total referrals in 2009/10 to 35.8% in 2018/19. Solicitor referrals fell sharply in the same period, from 67.8% to 21.9%.’

‘We have noticed a huge change in source of referrals since legal aid reforms led to a reduction in provision for most family cases,’ said Elizabeth Coe, Resolution’s chief executive. ‘Families who are going through a separation now often need to negotiate the family law system without the support of a legal professional.’

Thompsons strike off
Staff at trade union firm Thompsons Solicitors will not strike over pay tomorrow after last-ditch talks yielded a new deal, according to the Law Society’s Gazette.

‘Union members voted 89% in favour of taking action on a turnout of nearly 73% after Thompsons made an original offer of 1%, followed by a revised offer of 2% after talks at ACAS. Demands for a 3.5% increase were not met,’ the Gazette reported. ‘According to the firm, the new deal does not increase the pay offer but proposes ‘non-monetary benefits’ and the chance for staff to be involved in decisions on pay.’

Court closures
Many court closures in the past have not been based on the real travelling times it would take people to get to an alternative building, the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has admitted (as reported by Legal Futures).

Speaking to MPs on the public accounts committee, Susan Acland-Hood said that ‘some years ago’ officials looked instead at the ‘point to point’ distance between courts rather than the actual travelling distance. Now they look at the postcodes of people attending the court and ‘the real travelling times’ which meant studying ‘actual public transport journeys’ and taking into account delays where they were known about. The Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown raised the case of Cirencester Magistrates’ Court, a town in his constituency, where ‘closure means people having to travel to Gloucester – a journey of up to 25 miles’. Apparently, a taxi fare to Gloucester for some of his constituents could be £40-£50.

Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), said he believed the court reforms would be delivered on time. Giving evidence alongside Acland-Hood, he described it as a ‘difficult programme’ which was ‘not going swimmingly but is broadly on track’.

Quote of the the Day from The Times Brief (here) came from Sir Richard Heaton explaining to MPs on the justice select committee his intentions for a recent budget boost from the Treasury.

‘It is money needed to keep the lights on. Our computer systems desperately need replacing. There are lots of things we need money for. I feel this gives us a baseline for keeping the lights on and a third of the extra stuff we asked for. We’ve got to keep plugging away at this.’

Justice first fellows
The Legal Education Foundation has opened applications for social justice organisations to host a Justice First Fellow trainee solicitor, starting in January 2021. So far more than 80 trainee solicitor and barrister posts have ben created since the scheme was launched in 2014 and over half of the fellows are now qualified.

TLEF pays for the trainee’s salary plus the cost of their management and supervision (law firms are expected to contribute half of the full costs). Applications close on January 15, 2020. For more information visit the Justice First Fellowship pages.

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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