Half of the crown courtrooms in Brighton and Hove sat empty today and yesterday – in line with an informal poll carried out by a senior lawyer.
The poll – carried out in response to an exasperated message on social media – found that almost half of 260 available courtrooms in crown courts nationally were not in use yesterday (Monday 19 August).
Judges were sitting in three of the four courtrooms that are usually in use at Lewes Crown Court, which also takes cases from Brighton and Hove.
And at Brighton and Hove Magistrates’ Court, in Edward Street, Brighton, there were sittings in only three courtrooms – courtroom 1, courtroom 2 and courtroom 11.
The story about the empty courts was published by the Law Society Gazette after criminal barrister Jonathan Dunne responded on Twitter to fellow barrister James Mulholland.
Mr Mulholland, a Queen’s Counsel (QC), tweeted: “Twelve out of 15 courts at Southwark Crown Court are not sitting during the entire week of 19/8.
“Prosecutions are at their lowest level since statistics began.
“You don’t stop criminals with rhetoric but by supplying the necessary funding to ensure they are tried in court and convicted.”
Mr Dunne replied: “Only 2 out of 6 courts are sitting in Leicester Crown Court next week, and they are doing part heard trials … It’s all falling about our ears. @BorisJohnson you need to wake up.”
He then asked fellow barristers and court users on Twitter to share their knowledge of local circumstances to build up a nationwide picture.
The response – and the criticisms of the way that the justice system is funded – came thick and fast.
12 out of 15 courts at Southwark Crown Court are not sitting during the entire week of 19/8. Prosecutions are at their lowest level since statistics began. You don’t stop criminals with rhetoric but by supplying the necessary funding to ensure they are tried in court & convicted.
— James Mulholland QC (@muljam23) August 16, 2019
Mr Dunne told the Law Society Gazette: “I honestly thought across the country I would find 25 per cent of courts (sitting idle) given we’re in the holiday season and August is reasonably quiet. But it’s been consistently 50 per cent.”
Among the comments that he made and received were criticisms of the government for spinning a line that was odds with the reality.
Only 2 out of 6 courts are sitting in Leicester Crown Court next week, and they are doing part heard trials. Late on Friday they took out 13 PTPHs and 3 listed trials. It’s all falling about our ears. @BorisJohnson you need to wake up.
— Jonathan Dunne (@DunneJonathan) August 17, 2019
The comments came against the backdrop of a number of law and order announcements by Boris Johnson since he became Prime Minister last month.
He said that he would “come down hard on crime”, extend police powers to stop and search people and bring in tougher prison sentences.
Mr Johnson also said that he wanted criminals to be afraid, rather than the public.
He pledged to spend £2.5 billion on 10,000 new prison places and promised to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers in the next three years.
The Law Society Gazette quoted Chris Henley, who chairs the Criminal Bar Association, saying that the latest figures were not unique to August.
He said: “There is a deliberate and aggressive squeeze on court capacity by the government to save money.
“Judges are being told to stay at home or take extra holidays on full pay because so many courtrooms are shut.
“This is nothing to do with a lack of work. Cases are being listed well into next year because of the squeeze on capacity.”
In Lewes, Brighton and Hove crown courts, contested cases involving more than one defendant tend to take longer to reach trial.
While few might pity a guilty defendant having to wait for justice, victims – and the innocent accused – are more likely to be aggrieved by the wait.
Time spent in prison on remand – while awaiting trial – is deducted from any sentence which has also been known to leave victims feeling cheated by the system.
The Law Society Gazette said that courts were “allocated sitting days” and quoted Mr Henley as saying that allocations had been cut by up to a third in many court centres over the past two years.
According to the Gazette, the Law Society’s vice president David Greene said that the Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) had been directing work from some courts to others.
He said: “This has led to many courts standing idle while others are overbooked. HMCTS has also reduced the number of days it will pay for sitting judges.
“We call on HMCTS to communicate clearly and transparently as to why so many courts appear to be underutilised.”
And Richard Atkins, chair of the Bar Council, was quoted as saying that the figures were a “devastating blow to those victims of crime who are waiting for their cases to come to court or who are waiting for justice to be done to those who have admitted committing crimes against them”.
Presicesly. And there are some really horrendous cases where defendants are on bail. Sex assaults on young children by family members for example. Trial dates being set for next summer where the victims are very young indeed. I kid you not.
— Jonathan Dunne (@DunneJonathan) August 18, 2019
According to the Gazette, the Courts and Tribunals Service said: “There is no shortage of judges in the crown court and sitting day requirements and waiting times are reviewed throughout the year, with additional recorders deployed according to demand.
“Last year saw a 12 per cent reduction in crown court trial cases and the allocation of sitting days reflects this. Waiting times for these cases are the shortest since 2014.”