Jury out on Court system

The law has been changed to end an MP’s exemption from jury service. So when I was summoned last month as a juror at Southwark Crown Court I thought it would be an interesting experience.

Sadly, it was not a positive one. I saw inefficiency in the court system that simply would not be acceptable in any well-run school or business.

The taxpayer spends a massive £850 million on the courts. Not much of it was in evidence at Southwark Crown Court.

Different clocks on the walls told different times so jurors turned up late as a result. There was no public address system or loudspeakers of any kind in the courtroom, making some of the witnesses virtually inaudible. And digital photographs, which were important evidence exhibits, had to be shown to the jury a few times because they had got “muddled up on the computer”.

The poorly furnished waiting areas and interminably long lunch queues at the canteen did not give you the feeling that serving as a juror was a vital civic duty that should instil a sense of pride.

But the biggest complaint from some fellow jurors was the fact the court sat for so few hours each day. We concluded this was bound to stretch out the length of the case and add delay to the whole system. So I looked up some figures.

Nationally, there were nearly 30,000 cases waiting to go to Crown Courts in 2004 – a rise of one fifth in the last five years. In Suffolk, the number of outstanding trials at Ipswich Crown Court was 195 in 2001/02, 193 in 2002/03, and 212 in 2003/04. There was a welcome drop to 184 in 2004/05 but that is still higher than the 166 outstanding trials four years ago.

Across the whole country, the time from committal to the start of the court case has risen from thirteen weeks to over fifteen weeks in the last seven years. In Suffolk, the average waiting time for a trial at Ipswich Crown Court has risen from under twelve weeks to fifteen weeks in the last four years.

The result? Victims waiting too long to see justice done after a crime has been committed. And those accused of breaking the law must wonder whether society really takes their crimes seriously at all.

The court works a much shorter day than the rest of us. In my case it was a 10:30 am start, knocking off for lunch at 1pm. Then an afternoon’s work from 2pm to 4:30pm - but sometimes the day finished even earlier.

That’s at the second busiest Criminal Court in London! The Ipswich Crown Court hours are similar - the average sitting day is under four and a half hours, which is half an hour less than five years ago.

Speeding up justice means longer sitting hours. So why doesn’t the Government fix it, you may ask?

Extended court hours were, in fact, piloted in magistrate’s courts in Manchester and London some years ago. The sensible aim was to make the process swifter and better for witnesses and victims who wanted to reduce the days they had to take off work. In Manchester, the Courts started at 9am. On two days a week extra evening sessions ran from 4-8pm for lesser offences - and this cut waiting times for such trials from 12 to 5 weeks. Those evening trials were particularly welcomed by witnesses.

This new approach was discontinued on the grounds that night working cost more! Well, I am sure a shift system could get round that alleged problem. Bizarrely, the Government did not even try these new ideas in the Crown Court, where reform is clearly required.

One good thing came out of my court experience. I was impressed by my fellow jurors who were scrupulous and careful in studying the evidence and reaching a verdict.

I was proud to serve on a jury with my fellow citizens. I was not so proud of the general inefficiency I saw, which made the drawn-out court case in Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’ look like a training film, not a work of fiction.

Let’s get serious about improving criminal justice. And create a modern system fit for the twenty first century.

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