Justice delayed: Inside the backlog at Sheffield’s courts
‘The system isn’t falling apart. It's fallen apart’
By Dan Hayes
“Nobody seems to know what is going on,” comes a crackly voice over the court’s video link. “The prosecution is just putting his robes on and then we will be ready to go,” responded the court clerk. This felt more like a hope than an expectation. We’re in Court 7 at Sheffield Crown Court on the afternoon of Thursday, 3 November. And things are not going well.
The subject of everyone’s confusion is the defendant, a 44-year-old man appearing before the court on a bench warrant. These orders are issued by a judge when someone has failed to attend a hearing, and authorise police to arrest someone and bring them to the court, forcibly if need be. The offence in question, which almost seemed to have been forgotten in the chaos, was a “dwelling burglary” from more than a year ago. In Wolverhampton. No one seemed to know whether the defendant had surrendered voluntarily or been dragged here under duress.
Prosecutor Neil Coxon, his robes successfully on, didn’t know anything about the case and was busy trying to speed read the file. His opposite number, Karl Volz, appearing via a video link from Wolverhampton, was in exactly the same boat. As the two harassed lawyers tried to familiarise themselves with the twists and turns of the complicated case, everyone else just waited. And waited. And waited some more. Eventually, the defendant was brought up from the cells, shortly followed into court by Judge Jeremy Richardson KC, the Recorder of Sheffield.
“You know more about this case than anybody else at the moment,” Judge Richardson told the sheepish defendant as he came in. The accused, who only that morning had been picked up at his workplace by police, looked, as you might expect, a little bit bewildered to be there. Dressed in a baggy grey t-shirt, and speaking in a thick, Black Country accent, he tried his best to explain his case to the judge.
He was meant to have appeared before Wolverhampton Crown Court last month, but hadn’t turned up. Why was he now appearing at Sheffield Crown Court? Because in between his initial appearance at a magistrates’ court in the West Midlands and his first scheduled appearance at a crown court, he had moved to Doncaster. He told the court he had been unable to return to Wolverhampton because of the train strike. Judge Richardson didn’t sound convinced.
The barristers couldn’t really help. “I haven't been able to take instruction from the defendant so I don’t know what his reason is for not attending,” said Mr Volz, his task made all the harder by a less than perfect video link to Wolverhampton. The key fact seemed to be that the defendant had already failed to appear twice when asked to, leaving Judge Richardson little option but to keep him locked up. “Given the history of this case, coupled with the defendant’s far from roseate criminal history,” he told the court. “I am remanding him in custody to appear at Wolverhampton Crown Court on 11 November.”
The bench warrant was just one case heard on Thursday at this city’s Crown Court. But it illustrates the deep problems that the justice system is facing at the moment.
Even in normal times, the gears of the legal system can turn incredibly slowly, an issue that has been exacerbated by years of funding cuts from central government. So when there is a huge disruption to the process, as happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, it takes a long time to clear the backlog. And that backlog is now very big indeed. At the end of June, at Sheffield Crown Court, there were 1,270 outstanding cases, up from 1,238 at the end of March. Of these cases, 374 related to alleged violent attacks and 167 were for alleged sex offences, including 33 alleged rapes.
Across England and Wales, at the end of the second quarter of 2022, there were an estimated 59,687 outstanding cases at Crown Courts, up 2% on the previous quarter (58,398). With such a backlog you might imagine court buildings to be overflowing with people. Queues outside the courtrooms, even. But when I visited the court this week the building was unnervingly quiet. Many of the courtrooms were empty and the court staff seemed surprised to see me.
Why this might be is an interesting question. As well as the court building and all the courtrooms it contains, each case demands everyone involved be there when they are supposed to be. If one person isn’t there — be they the judge, the prosecution and defence barristers, the defendant or defendants, or a witness or a jury member — then the hearing can’t take place. So it gets delayed by another few weeks. Or another few months. An usher told me that Judge Richardson, the most senior judge at Sheffield Crown Court, was proud to have kept a backlog lower than other courts. But being efficiently run can only really have an effect at the margins, it can’t insulate them entirely from the tidal wave of cases Covid stored up.
The next case due to be heard in Court 7 was equally complex, although for different reasons. Andi Alushi, 26, and Valdemaras Kasinskas, 38, both needed interpreters to be present, but for different languages. An Albanian interpreter had been booked for Alushi while a Lithuanian interpreter had been booked for Kasinskas, but they were running late.
“The Lithuanian interpreter has just left the lift and is on her way to Court 7 now,” said the clerk, to everyone’s relief. A short time later a slightly flustered looking middle-aged woman who looked like she’d just been shopping in the city centre arrived and made her way to the dock. The Albanian interpreter, a heavy set bald man, arrived a few seconds later, wiping sweat from his brow with a tissue.
Once everyone was in place, the hearing was dealt with relatively quickly, barring a few high-pitched squeals from the still dodgy video link. After having the case against them translated first into Lithuanian and then into Albanian, the defendants both pleaded guilty to two counts of false imprisonment. But just as a November date was being set for sentencing, another spanner was thrown in the works.
Due to crimes the pair had committed abroad, a pre-sentence report was needed to assess whether they were dangerous criminals, potentially increasing the length of their sentence. In the end, the sentencing was set down for 3 January, the first day back after the Christmas and New Year break.
Considering Alushi and Kasinskas’s crimes only dated from last May, seven months isn’t a bad timescale to turn round a case from offence to sentence. But some other cases being heard had been waiting for much longer. In Court 5, a series of alleged historic sex offences were being tried. The case was finally approaching its conclusion, with closing speeches by the barristers and the judge’s summing up. But the defendant had first been arrested back in January 2020, almost three years ago.
And in another case, again dealing with alleged historic sex offences, the hearing sat for little more than a few minutes. This was just enough time for the court to realise that one of the defendants needed a dementia assessment and they would all have to come back in a few weeks time when it was complete. “That was a useful use of the court’s time,” the judge grumbled as he returned to his chambers.
Gul Nawaz Hussain KC, the most senior barrister in South Yorkshire, agrees that during lockdown, because of the measures that the Recorder of Sheffield Judge Jeremy Richardson had brought in, Sheffield was able to carry on doing a lot more than many other courts were doing. However, he says that this is a “drop in the ocean” compared with a problem that had been growing since long before Covid.
“Covid has been used as a fig-leaf to cover successive governments’ lack of investment in the criminal justice system,” he tells me. “Because they know it's something that they can take money from, and there won't be any kind of public outcry.”
Hussain says this long-term lack of investment was now having a profound effect on the criminal justice system. This can be seen in the length of time many victims and defendants are waiting for trials to take place, with four year delays now not uncommon, to cuts to legal aid and crumbling court buildings with leaking roofs and nowhere to eat. “The system isn’t falling apart,” he tells me. “It's fallen apart.”
The only reason the system was now surviving was because of the goodwill of the people working within it, he adds. “But now, instead of the extra mile being an occasional request, it is now effectively become the sole thing that’s holding this system up,” he says. “And when there is no reciprocity for that goodwill from the government, in terms of investment, or pay, then that system is doomed to fail.”