On Thursday 15 May, Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at The Law Society, visited Nottingham and saw how the Bridewell, Magistrates’ Court and Crown Court were operating.
During the afternoon he took part in a round table meeting kindly hosted by Bhatia Best solicitors. Nottingham Crime solicitor Graham Heathcote was in attendance from VHS Fletchers.
The main talking points amongst these defence practitioners were:
- The fact that the Crown Prosecution is at breaking point. There seems to be no prospect of that organisation of due to the high volume of its caseload. The organisation is unable to fill its advertised posts. The recently publicised problems with, for example, disclosure are simply due to lack of resources.
- Defence solicitors are ageing. In a large number of areas a scheme’s youngest member is now older than 50. There appears to be a real concern that defence lawyers as a breed may die out. Recruitment is even more difficult than for the Crown Prosecution Service – lack of prospects and security, and without any of the benefits of working for the Crown.
- Flexible working remains on the agenda but will be difficult to progress. The powers that be at HMCTS failed to understand, for example, a requirement to give organisations such as GeoAmey 12 weeks’ notice of any contract amendment before hours can be varied.
- The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing court staff, is also putting forward opposition to the plan. It was suggested that at present there was no united between all of the different elements opposed to this change, and the hope is for joined up opposition.
- Issues relating to listing are hidden behind ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. The figures regarding court throughput of work and non-effective trials were being ‘massaged’ by the invention of a notional “Court 60” in many areas. Nottingham, for example, appears to have a ‘Court 99’. Case which everyone knows have to go off due to lack of courts or judges are listed in this court so that it looks as though work is being undertaken within an acceptable time frame. Courts are able to hit centrally imposed targets due to this falsehood, disguising the extent of the problem.
- Video links were identified as having little useful effect as a first Crown Court hearing. Little progress can be made due to time constraints and the lack of the physical presence of a client. Seems unlikely, however, that anything will change as the powers that be are wedded to the idea of video conferencing.
- Similarly, virtual courts, remote please and bodycam video interviews with suspects are all designed to marginalise the effect of defence lawyers.
- It may be that Labour are waking up to the issue of a collapsing system. It seems that they might wish further assistance from bodies such as the Law Society and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Representative bodies ought to be feeding information such as the manipulation of statistics or systemic failures into the political discussion, with a view to scrutiny by relevant select committees.
Richard Miller was receptive, spoke well on the subject (as would be expected) and urged the profession to keep up the pressure and publicity about a system in crisis. Perhaps most depressingly, however, nothing which was raised locally had not been said and confirmed at the various other stops that he and his team have made nationwide.