A QUARTET of barristers sit at the front of the court room. There’s a police officer and a solicitor behind them. Three defendants and, deep in the bowels of Swindon Crown Court, witnesses nervously wait for the trial to begin.

Except it doesn’t. Again.

For the second time in as many weeks it’s been put off for lack of court time.

The trial could take five days or it could take longer. The judge on the raised dais at the front of the pebble-dashed court room won’t be sitting next week and, understandably, can’t risk having to discharge the jury after a week.

Read more: SPECIAL REPORT: Robert Buckland on prisons, courts, legal aid and the issues facing the justice system

There was a similar problem the week before. The judge couldn’t sit for part of the week and someone had overruled the Swindon clerks’ request for a stand-in.

The consequence? Delay. Not long in the grand scheme of things – just a month. But it’s an inconvenience a stressed system could perhaps do without.

Delay and frustration

One of the south west’s most senior barristers warned last month that the “brakes have been put on the wheels of justice”.

Kate Brunner is chairman of the Western Circuit, the body representing barristers from Swindon and Gloucester to Land's End. Called to the bar in 1997, she was made Queen's Counsel – a senior barrister – in 2015. A specialist in criminal law, child protection, fraud and regulatory work, she has sat as a crown court Recorder and a tribunal judge.

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Kate Brunner QC

Published last month, the Western Circuit’s report This Doesn’t Look Like Justice shone a spotlight on grinding delays in the region’s criminal justice system.

It claimed delays were rocketing and the length of time between cases starting and finishing was getting longer and longer.

In some courts trials were being listed for nine months’ time.

'We wanted to let people know what was going on'

Speaking to the Adver, Ms Brunner said the report had been commissioned to get a better picture of what was happening day in day out.

“There was a real gap between what the politicians were telling us, that there is less work in the crown court, and what criminal practitioners were reporting on the ground – that the delays are building up and the courts can’t cope,” she said.

“The statistics which the government relies on are six to nine months old by the time we see them as they have to go through the Office of National Statistics.

“Barristers really wanted to let the public and government know what the day-to-day picture was, particularly in the smaller courts which struggle the most when courtrooms are closed.”

The report aggregates many of the national statistics, while also giving a more in depth take on what happened at Gloucester Crown Court.

It came up with a stack of recommendations, including that courts with two court rooms should ensure both are kept open as generally happens at Swindon. Government should publish up-to-date figures for court delays.

And sitting days – the days of the year when courts are running – should increase significantly.

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Swindon Crown Court

That last wish has, at least partly, come true. Justice Secretary and South Swindon MP announced earlier this month that there would be an extra 4,500 sitting days in the next legal year, which runs from October to July.

Ms Brunner welcomed that announcement, but said it was not enough: “The net effect is still that we are way down on sitting days compared to 2018. At the last statistics, the new work coming into the crown court and the backlog was higher than it had been in 2018, so there is no logic to the sitting days for next year being lower.

“We will continue to see delays and scenes of chaos until court siting days are increased properly.”

She said the Western Circuit would continue to campaign on the issues touched on in the report. “This is a national problem. The crisis is not limited to criminal courts. Barristers who work in other areas of law, like family law, report that court buildings are so run down they are difficult to work in, many courts have been closed so people have to travel long distances, and the lack of proper legal aid means that people have to represent themselves at vulnerable times in their lives.”

A state that doesn't prosecute criminals

She warned that the country was becoming a “state that does not prosecute its criminals” as she took aim at delays in the criminal justice system.

The leader of the Western Circuit said there were two “eye-openers” from that audit of the south west courts.

“It is hard to know how many crimes are really committed because lots are never reported to police, but the best estimates are that about half of crimes are not reported,” she said.

“We are becoming a state which does not prosecute its criminals.”

The lawyer said colleagues had told stories of witnesses turning up to court repeatedly only to be told that the court did not have time to her their case.

“They are being treated appallingly by the criminal justice system as a whole.

“There are massive delays happening at all stages of the system, partly because police are now releasing suspects ‘under investigation’ which means that they are not subject to any time limitation.

“The police and CPS are so underfunded that they take far longer than they used to to process cases.

“The final insult is that once those cases come to court the court does not have time to hear the trial for another year or so, and has false starts where witnesses are sent home.

“The overall stress and delay for witnesses is terrible. No wonder a fifth of witnesses pull out before cases finish.”

Minister's response to criticism

Justice Secretary and South Swindon MP Robert Buckland claimed waiting times were falling across the region.

The barrister said: “There are many reasons for delays in cases coming to court, but sitting days are kept under constant review and I’ve allocated an extra 4,700 for the first half of next year, meaning that there will be a minimum of 87,000 sitting days.”

“This process has allowed us to reduce Crown Court waiting times to their lowest for four years, with outstanding cases in the South West falling by more than 50 per cent since 2014.”

The Ministry of Justice claimed the number of cases at crown courts has fallen by almost 40 per cent nationally since 2014. Waiting times for the first three quarters of 2019 were said to have been at their lowest in four years.

The government said waiting times for crown court cases in the south west were five weeks lower than they were in 2015.

They stressed the listing of cases was a matter for judges, but promised a spending boost.