Shine A Light

Child witnesses kept waiting for years: the state of British justice

Court delays cause irreparable damage to children alleging serious sexual abuse. A criminal barrister blames government cuts.

Criminal Barrister
26 February 2014
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You could be waiting years (ill. Andy Peters, from MoJ advice to child witnesses)

I have just, for the second time, prepared a trial involving traumatised children alleging serious sexual abuse. For the second time, the trial has been removed from the list the night before the trial because there is no court/judge available to hear it. When I met these children, at court at the pre (first) trial visit, they came clutching their “Going to Crown Court” booklets. The youngest told me he had been having nightmares about court and barristers and the defendant coming to get him. The Defendant was arrested two years ago. The Complainants were desperate to get the trial over with and get on with their lives. I promised them that whatever happened, it would soon be over. The very next day it was removed from the fixture list. Today it was removed from the list for tomorrow.

I don’t know whether these allegations are true – that’s not my remit. What I do know is that true or false, one side or the other, arguably both, are very ill served by a system that makes 6 year olds wait two years for a trial only to be told it isn’t going to happen when everyone said it would. Twice. Despite the government’s protestations about its care for the victims of crime, this is a disgrace.

The Courts are not to blame. They can only do what they are funded to do. The Ministry of Justice keep cutting court staff and judges and sitting days. This trial gave way for trials equally serious and traumatic.

Quite apart from the fact that I have now lost days prepping the case, and eight days of diary time when I was booked to do it, earning nothing as a result, I am ashamed of the state of our criminal justice system and the way it is racing to the bottom. I am frightened for the future, when I see hard pressed Crown Prosecution Service lawyers and case workers have their case loads doubled and tripled overnight, as they see experienced colleagues being made redundant, and local CPS offices close. They are left with little hope of doing their job as well as they wish it to be done, or as well as they need it to be done. Despite this I see them battle on, desperately doing the best that they can.

I’m frightened when I see experienced barristers, with years of crown court experience leave the Bar, or move into alternative areas of practice. I wonder when I will do the same.

I find it hard to look alleged victims and witnesses and defendants in the face when they ask me when trials will take place.

For this reason I remain committed to action. Whether it succeeds in making any difference remains to be seen. But together we have the power to try. Divided we can do nothing. Which is why I hope that we will be resolute and strong. And why I will not be in Court on the 7th March, or accepting returns thereafter.

If I can’t stand up and be counted for a legal system I was so proud to be part of, who will? When?

This comment appeared first at the Criminal Bar Association, who provided an explanatory note about the Day of Action:

For the non-lawyers that read this and with the greatest of respect I include the Lord Chancellor, there follows an explanation of returns:

From 7th March 2014 many barristers will withdraw their goodwill from the criminal justice system by refusing to appear in court on each other's cases in protest at legal aid cuts.
Traditionally, criminal barristers have kept the courts running smoothly by moving cases between one another to ensure that every defendant has a barrister in court when the case is called on. The Criminal Bar Association understand that a number of barristers wish to suspend this practice of cooperation (known as 'returns') which barristers believe will leave the courts struggling to cope with a huge backlog of work, as barristers have to travel between courts to cover their own cases.
Criminal barristers who take this action are doing so to highlight the vital role they play in the criminal justice system, which they feel is being ignored in Minister Chris Grayling's proposals to cut £220 million in legal aid fees, cuts neither justified nor necessary. 


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