A man has been told he will have to spend more than four years in jail without trial as a result of ‘Covid, barrister strikes and a malfunctioning courtroom’. According to the Guardian, 36-year old Voja Petkovic was arrested in January 2019 and ‘remains on remand in Leicester prison despite not having been convicted of any of the charges against him’.
It was reported that Petkovic is now not due in court until April next year and the Crown Prosecution Service has ‘already started making representations’ to delay the case further until May 2023 as a result of the court backlog. ‘Petkovic has been caught up in a multifaceted crisis that has led the Law Society of England and Wales to warn of a “collapsing criminal justice system”,’ writes Daniel Boffey.
His solicitor, Brian Swan, told the paper he had never heard of any defendant facing such a long period in jail without trial where there was no fault on the part of the accused. ‘He is not doing well mentally,’ Swan said. ‘His daughter was one month old when he was arrested and is now starting school.’ When Petkovic’s trial started earlier this year, progress was delayed by the failure of the court’s air conditioning system in the middle of a heatwave prior to it collapsing at the end of July. ‘The prison staff would not attend if the temperature in the court went above 23 degrees,’ said Swan. ‘The prosecution actually asked for the case to be discharged because it was taking so long. The judge took two weeks to consider. He came back and said: “No, we will carry on.” Then the next day he changed his mind and discharged the jury. It would have been discharged anyway because of the barristers’ strike.’
There have been numerous reports on the impact of the bar’s industrial action and refusals of courts to extend custody limits. For example, according to a report in the Oxford Mail, a man (not named) was due to be tried at Oxford Crown Court on three charges including a serious sexual assault allegation. But his trial could not start as the man’s barrister was taking part in the Bar’s industrial action.
Earlier this month a judge at Bristol Crown Court blamed ‘chronic underfunding’ of the criminal justice system for delays, as he refused to extend the custody time limit for another defendant whose barrister is on strike. ‘The ruling could be repeated in the cases of thousands of defendants in custody, as the backlog of Crown court cases remains around 60,000 and indefinite, all-out strike action by criminal barristers began this week,’ reported Catherine Baksi writing for the Law Society’s Gazette.
’On the one hand the state demands trials to commence within an applicable custody time limit, and on the other it holds the purse strings for remunerating those who are required under our rule of law to be provided with advocacy services,’ said Peter Blair QC, the recorder of Bristol. ’Today’s predicament arises precisely because of the chronic and predictable consequences of long term underfunding. The unavailability of representation for the defendant today has arisen because of a persistent and predictable background feature of publicly funded criminal litigation.’
According to the Criminal Bar Association, extension of custody time limits has been refused by judges at courts up and down the country ‘including Bristol, Isleworth, Bolton, Leicester, Lincoln, Woolwich and Manchester’. ‘Some of these cases are the subject of expedited judicial review by the CPS, others are not,’ said the CBA. ‘Their judgments are clear that the CBA action increased gradually, giving government plenty of space and time to resolve it. The judgments spell out that the government has had ample time to resolve the legal aid dispute and ongoing crisis in the criminal justice system. The applications to keep defendants in prison as trials are adjourned, therefore, are failing at Crown Courts.’