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Crisis in Norfolk courts is ‘undermining’ justice with lack of judges and soaring waiting times

PUBLISHED: 07:50 13 January 2019 | UPDATED: 12:45 14 January 2019

Simon Spence QC talking to the media during Joe Storey's murder trial. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Simon Spence QC talking to the media during Joe Storey's murder trial. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

A leading barrister has said a “crisis” in Norfolk’s courts is “undermining the credibility of witnesses” as waiting times for justice soar across the county.

Norwich Crown Court. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYNorwich Crown Court. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The number of sitting magistrates has fallen by more than a third in Norfolk, and waiting times in the county’s lower courts have risen by 80pc since 2010 - the highest increase in England and Wales.

And in the crown court, victims and witnesses are waiting an average of 200 days - sometimes more than a year - to see justice done.

The Ministry of Justice said they are “working to reduce delays” in the courts.

Simon Spence QC, chairman of the East Anglian Bar Mess, prosecuted the murder trial of Joe Storey, who killed his former partner Kerri McAuley, at Norwich Crown Court.

He said it was “absurd” that waiting times in the courts were rising while fewer people were being prosecuted.

“You would expect to see shorter waiting times for cases getting through,” he said.

“The problem is because the Ministry of Justice is aware the number of cases being prosecuted is falling, they are restricting court sitting times.”

The Ministry of Justice claimed there are “more cases being heard than before” at Norfolk magistrates courts.

But according to their own data, fewer than 14,000 defendants came through the county courts in 2017, down from a high of more than 18,000 in 2014.

Mr Spence added Norfolk and Suffolk suffers from a relative shortage of court rooms, which are being closed or left empty as sitting times are being cut.

From April, Ipswich Crown Court will sit for 25pc less time than last year, he said, adding that it is “effectively closing a courtroom”.

“It seems to me a scandal,” he said. “It means victims and witnesses taking longer to give evidence.

“The knock on effect if you have eye witnesses is the longer between them seeing and incident and describing it in court to a jury, the greater the opportunity for the defence to attack it.

“You are undermining the credibility of witnesses by introducing a delay. If someone is remanded in custody then the taxpayer is paying - and it is not cheap.”

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, said delays in the system are causing an “attrition of witnesses”.

“If there are so many fewer cases, the system failures should be radically going down,” she said.“These are systemic problems.

“It is terrible for victims because it is a stressful experience for any witness, defence or prosecution, to come to court and give evidence.

“You are going to have to psych yourself up to relive that experience. People are stressed by cross examination and courts. People take time off work and are often having to travel significant distances.

“In the case of defence witnesses they can be significantly out of pocket by coming to court.

“What you get is attrition of witnesses. It undermines trust in the whole system.”

As waiting times rise, the number of sitting magistrates in Norfolk has fallen from almost 350 to fewer than 200.

Jon Collins, chief executive of the Magistrates Association of England and Wales, said there are “significant shortages” due to a previous recruitment freeze.

“We have known the number of magistrates have been declining rapidly and they have fallen considerably before this,” he said. “Overall they have fallen by nearly half over the last decade.

“We are still looking to recruit 8,000 or so but I believe we need more than that. The issue at the moment is there is not enough people interested in doing it.”

Mr Spence added the shortage of judges has become a “recruitment crisis”.

“It is absurd we have fewer cases going through the court but it take so much longer to hear them,” he said. “It either indicates gross inefficiency or insufficient manpower.”

A spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service claimed “we have a world leading justice system”.

They added: “We are working together across the criminal justice system to ensure the smooth running of our courts, as well as using new technology and initiatives to reduce delays.

“Performance levels are continually kept under close review to ensure changes in demands are met.”

“It prolonged the suffering for us” - rapist delays justice by two years

Anthony Holloway was jailed for 13 years at Norwich Crown Court in May last year, with another five years on licence.

He raped a 60-year-old woman who has dementia at her Sprowston home in December 2015 - but the 53-year old was not jailed for two and half years because of long court delays.

When the case finally went to trial in September 2017, Holloway lied to the court, stating his uncle had died. The trial was stopped and the sentencing was then further delayed.

The son and his wife were faced with the prospect of having to give evidence for a second time in Holloway’s new trial.

But the rapist changed his plea to guilty for the charge of sexual activity with a person with a mental disorder impeding choice, meaning the trial did not have to go ahead. He then delayed proceedings again by trying to change his plea to not guilty.

That meant more court hearings had to be held.

The victim’s son said: “The let-downs after (the trial) became almost comedic. They just couldn’t get justice for my mum. It was very upsetting. We felt completely let down. It prolonged the suffering for us.”

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