24th February 2020
Writing: Robin Choudhury-Collins (Year 9)
Editing: Matt Human (Year 13)
You may have heard about the growing number of court cases that have been postponed across the country due to coronavirus-related delays. These often concern important issues, covering charges that could potentially be dropped unless a trial is held. Prosecutors’ credibility and chances of winning cases have been greatly diminished. Crucial eyewitnesses and others willing to provide statements have lost recollection of what it was they were to state in court. Magistrates, barristers, judges and even court staff in charge of handling cases have also been impacted.
The problem affects not only the prosecution and the courts. Perhaps of greatest concern - considering that they are often vulnerable and suffering from mental health problems - are the many young people accused of crime in the UK. Justin Russell, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, stated, ‘Delays mean victims must wait longer for cases to be heard; some will withdraw support for prosecutions because they have lost faith in the process.’ The backlog of criminal cases in courts has been monumental over the past 12 months - as of January 19th 2021, 53,000 cases are waiting to be heard in court. Some of them have been rescheduled for as late as 2023. In a recent push to address the issue, the Government Legal Department has poured £450 million into getting court dates back on schedule. However, a source, who had recently been on jury service, told me that the only cases currently being seen in court are the most serious ones, concerning custodial offences and sentencing.
The delays have exacerbated existing problems in the criminal justice system. State funding – known as ‘legal aid’ - has been drastically cut, leading to undertrained and underpaid lawyers taking on responsibility for defending the least well off in society. This means that ‘access to justice’ is determined by your income level. Young lawyers are hence rejecting this area of law and choosing instead to further their careers in better-paying sectors of law such as commercial law. In parts of the country, the criminal defence solicitor is in danger of becoming extinct.
For those who can’t afford to pay for what is known as a ‘fat cat lawyer’, the possibility of a fair trial is diminishing. In June 2019, criminal barristers threatened to enact a strike in courts and the President of the Law Society of England and Wales, Christina Blacklaws, said, ‘Good firms are collapsing. The evidence of the damage being done is overwhelming.’ With the added pressure of coronavirus-related delays bearing down on the system, some defendants are vulnerable to being unfairly prosecuted. Others are being moved into unfamiliar online hearings, which is seen to create new uncertainties and complications for defendants. However, in an extended interview that I conducted with a local judge, her opinion was that online cases can in fact ‘make for more efficient and easy hearings’.
Last year, some of us took part in the Magistrates’ Mock Trial Competition - led by Ms Cronin and Mrs Woodhouse - for which we travelled to High Wycombe Crown Court. This law competition brought together school teams from across Buckinghamshire, participating in a ‘mock trial’ given to us as a case study. We learnt how lawyers and magistrates went about their daily business in court and it was apparent to us how small some of the courtrooms were. In hindsight, considering the lack of space, it is now easy to see why hundreds of courtrooms across the country cannot facilitate social distancing. Many have been closed, with emergency ‘nightingale courts’ springing up in large halls and function rooms.
This question of an equal ‘access to justice’ should be of concern to all of us. Like many other aspects of public service provision – whether that be schools, healthcare or just the ability to exercise in a green space – COVID-19 has laid bare the many inequalities in our society. This begs the question, should the right to a fair trial be determined by someone’s income and social status?