A somewhat disheartening intervention yesterday from junior justice minister Shailesh Vara, the mendacious bozo behind the false statistics on barristers’ earnings fiasco, as his written ministerial statement heralds a consultation envisaging the closure of 91 courts and tribunals. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid made the following observation:
“The estate costs taxpayers around half a billion pounds each year, and at present, it is underused. Last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than fifty per cent of their available hearing time…The buildings being consulted on represent 16% of hearing rooms across the estate which are, on average, used for only a third of their available time. That is equivalent to fewer than 2 out of 5 days in a week. The majority of these courts are not used for at least two thirds of their available time, and one in three are not used three quarters of the time.”
I don’t oppose the notion of court closures out of misplaced loyalty towards tradition, nor am I suffering misty-eyed romanticism towards derelict, damp-ridden, publicly-funded hovels lying empty in the back of beyond. Common sense militates against keeping open court rooms that are habitually unused or unfit for purpose. Some of the proposed integration of smaller magistrates’ courts appears sensible.
But what rankles is this.
Anyone suffering so much as a one-night stand with the criminal process knows that one of the biggest problems – for defendants, complainants and witnesses alike – is the increasingly insane length of time it takes for trials, both in the magistrates’ and Crown courts, to be listed. Crown Court trials in some court centres are currently being listed for 2017. This tale of a trial being adjourned for a fourth time for “lack of court time” is disgracefully common. And this delay is a scandal deliberately engineered by Ministry of Justice policy. Courtrooms lie locked and empty in every court centre not for lack of work – but because the courts are expressly forbidden by financial fiat from having all courtrooms open at all times. On a recent visit to the North to adjourn a trial, a Crown Court Judge told us, with no effort to hide his despair, that this particular Crown Court is only permitted to have a maximum of 85% of its courtrooms open on any given day. So our serious armed robbery trial – with a complainant whom the Prosecution had dragged over from Australia – was kicked into the long grass, while the fully-functioning courtroom ten metres away lay locked and dormant.
And so when Messrs Vara and Gove cite underuse of court buildings as a justification for their closure, on a day when a trial of mine is yet again adjourned for lack of court time, this creates a dissonance that I struggle to reconcile. It’s akin to instructing hospitals only to use a fixed percentage of their wards, watching waiting lists soar and then publicly announcing that oodles can be saved by closing all those inefficient, underused infirmaries.
And, just as by keeping sick people on a waiting list you increase both the human cost and the financial cost to the state, so with adjourned court trials you prolong the anxiety for defendants and witnesses, lumber the taxpayer with further expense and increase the risk of miscarriages of justice, as witness evidence diminishes over time. And guilty men walk free. And innocent men are convicted.
I am not a politician, but if our court estate is costing half a billion pounds, if we have courtrooms lying empty, and if we have a waiting list of trials extending beyond 18 months, it strikes me that there may be a solution in there somewhere, perhaps one that doesn’t involve simply shutting down all those courts. And it’s a solution, I’d respectfully suggest, that even a bozo could see.