May 10 2022

‘Elaborate’, ‘archaic’ and ‘chaotic’: the experience of court users

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‘Elaborate’, ‘archaic’ and ‘chaotic’: the experience of court users

Sketch by Isobel Williams
Supreme Court sketch, R V Jogee sketch, www.isobelwilliams.blogspot.co.uk

Supreme Court sketch, R V Jogee sketch, www.isobelwilliams.blogspot.co.uk

Victims of crime and witnesses were frequently left ‘frustrated’  with no effective voice in ‘chaotic’ court proceedings, according to a new report by a coalition of 90 criminal justice organisations published today. The report (Structured Mayhem: Personal experiences of the Crown Court) by the Criminal Justice Alliance collates the experiences of victims, witnesses and defendants and features research by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London.

The authors – Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter & Amy Kirby – concluded that that Crown Court proceedings were ‘elaborate, ritualised and – in many respects – archaic’. ‘The wigs and gowns worn by legal professionals in court help, not least, to create a sense of other-worldliness,’ they said. The ‘key players’ – i.e., witnesses, victims and defendants – were ‘side-lined’ by the drama of proceedings and left ‘to play only minor roles’.
‘While hearings, and particularly trials, are elaborate and formal, they are also often chaotic. Bringing a large cast of characters together over the requisite period of time – along with necessary documentation and evidence in the form of video or audio recordings and physical artefacts – is a challenging task that can, and often does, go wrong.’
Structured Mayhem
According to a recent Crown Prosecution Service survey half of all victims and more than a third of witnesses felt unsupported while giving evidence. The average time it took from commission of an offence to conclusion of a Crown Court trial has risen from 304 to 360 days in the last 18 months.

‘Frequently our courts system still appears to operate with all the efficiency of the late 19th century in the first half of the 21st. Justice delayed, too often without explanation and amid huge confusion, can be every bit as bad as justice denied for victims and witnesses,’ said CJA director Ben Summerskill.

The report features a series of recommendations for the government and judiciary, including:

  • The criminal dock, which ‘isolates defendants and further alienates them from proceedings’, should only be used on ‘a discretionary basis where deemed appropriate by the judge for reasons of safety’. Instead, defendants should sit next to their lawyer.
  • Lawyers needed to translate ‘legalese’  as they can make trials ‘almost incomprehensible’ to victims, witnesses and defendants. The Judicial College and Crown Prosecution should  provide better training in ‘plain English’ for judges and prosecutors.
  • Witnesses’ employers should be able to request information about the length of a case or the time an individual will be missing from work.

Last year only half of Crown Court trials went ahead as planned even when victims and witnesses had been required to attend. Dr Jessica Jacobson, lead author of the report, said:

‘The court experience is alienating for victims, witnesses and defendants alike. They share a marginalised, outsider status within a process that is highly formal and elaborate, while also chaotic.’

More information about the Criminal Justice Alliance can be found here.

5 responses to “‘Elaborate’, ‘archaic’ and ‘chaotic’: the experience of court users”

  1. Christopher Lennon says:

    This reads like one long whine and hardly to be taken seriously. All the posts on Justice Gap, taken together, give the impression we have the worst justice system in the world, instead of one of the best, in fact. Lawyers all over the world wear gowns. OK, wigs are unique and quaint, but must we sweep away all tradition and if so, why would justice be enhanced thereby?

  2. response to Christopher Lennon

    The only thing I agree about his comments is that the wigs and gowns should be kept, but unless you have participated in a court of law in the UK in whatever capacity, the thrust of the article is totally correct.

    Where a justice system says on paper one is innocent until proven guilty and in actual procedure define you as guilty until you prove your innocence

    for example how can a ‘victim’ with all the rights of support by many professional paid bodies, including being able to claim compensation pre trial – be classed as a victim, until a jury have said they are. By this process the accused is deemed guilty, until the jury at trial prove him innocent or not. Is that a level playing field?

    The accused have no support of professional bodies other than by the occasional voluntary group such as FASO and a few others.

    The regular articles on the Justice Gap are extremely informative and tell the story accurately as seen by those stuck in the system and supporting the faslely accused and factually Innocent.

    FASO Director

  3. Anthony Lowery says:

    Christopher Lennon has obviously not been in the ‘Dock’ where one is left helpless and unable to intervene, particularly when one’s own lawyers get it wrong and you are in no position to correct them until it is two late.
    Judges who are only interested in getting the day finished so they can attend functions or dinner dates and so dragging trials out longer than necessary. If my Judge sat more than five hours a day whilst hearing my case it was excessive, whereas everyday I endured in getting to and from Court to prison and back 6 hrs travelling, everyday arriving late and having the Judge apologise to the Jury because I had made them late starting. No meals where provided in the Court cells except tea and sandwich, whereas the early start and late return meant I had no hot food for the six days of trial and was refused permission for my family to send in. I was a mental wreck and unable to understand proceedings by day 3. None of this addressed by my lawyers or the Judge even though a request was made to him for meals and refused. The accused must be in a position where he is in constant contact with his defence team, who in this chaotic system only get his side of it third hand via a solicitor except possibly for the few brief meetings in the cells.

  4. Gary M says:

    I read the article somewhat differently to Mr Lennon, (above).
    I suppose it depends upon your own personal experiences. For my part, unfortunately I went through the process, (as a witness ‘for’ my father)as my brother made a series of historical claims, (40 years) against him.

    Prior to the actual trial which did not happen for 2 years, we were dragged all around London to 4 different courts, (sometimes for 6 or 7 hours only to be dealt with in literally minutes). On each occasion having to pay mounting hourly legal costs for something that could have been done in 2 minutes via a conference video call.

    Further on each occasion my 80 year old father was taken in to custody again and again. A totally humiliating position to be in. Especially, if innocent.

    My father repeatedly mentioned how intimidated he felt as he was put in the dock and starred at by everyone in the court room. Many of which were members of the public waiting for other cases. It is not fair nor just, that any innocent person should be put through such an ordeal.

    Society as a whole has always pre-judged people when accused of a sexual offence. A situation which has been exasperated in recent times due to the wide publicity of Saville and the like.

    This can be evidenced by a conversation I had with a friend who recently served on a jury of an unrelated case. He explained how he and his fellow jurors found someone guilty of a historic sex allegation, (some 38 years)and they were happy to find out the defendant had previously been convicted of a similar case a few years before.

    Dumbfounded by such a reaction I enquired as to why on earth they would be happy to discover such a thing, only to find his/their answer shocking and more than a little frightening….,

    The reply was along the following lines…,

    While they did not believe the complainants story, they did believe there was “no smoke without fire”, so they decided to find him guilty of something! Thus they felt relieved, finding out the fellow had a past conviction.

    Does this sound like the justice system the world is so proud of?

    How proud of ‘our system’ would you be, if you were the person in the dock?

    At the other end of the scale, I know another case in which a possibly guilty man was set free because two of the jurors, (in the jury room) explained it was against their religion to judge another man, (only God could do that) so each insisted they could only vote ‘not guilty’.

    The system, ‘our system’, has many good points but it also has flaws which sometimes result in the whole process becoming a terrible lottery.

    And for those of you who praise the system, I fear you may not be as confident as you are now if you ‘had’ risked your life at the proverbial sharp end. Nor if someone from years gone by; perhaps an old school friend or someone you baby sat, one day comes out of the woodwork and hands you your very own ‘lottery ticket’.

    Remember, your lucky ticket may not come today or tomorrow, it may come in 30, 40 or 50 years when you are far less able to defend yourself and much of the evidence you may need to prove your innocence has long gone.

    Fortunately for my father, justice did prevail but only after a High Court appeal and 3 years of heartache and substantial cost, (in both health and money).

    I urge everyone to do something about this situation.

    And please remember one day, ( & in keeping with lottery theme)…,


  5. Christopher Lennon says:

    A lot of serious points made and I do sympathise, with the wrongly accused, especially. My experience amounts to studying law at University level, being a juror or two occasions and a witness in a road traffic accident case in the magistrates court on one occasion. Fortunately, I have never been in the dock. There, but for the grace of God, I believe, as it would have been so easy to get into serious trouble when I was younger. The cases where I was a juror, in two different Crown Courts, did not involve sexual offences and these have caused a lot of anxiety, I acknowledge. It goes back to ‘feminist jurisprudence’ some years ago, which complained men were getting away with rape and other sexual offences on a large scale and there needed to be a ‘rebalancing’. This came with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which actually went so far as to redefine ‘rape’, and the work of the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir, as he is now, Keir Starmer, MP, as he is now((Labour), who coined the memorable phrase and accusers’ charter “complainants must be believed” and supported the effective abolition of the former requirement of corroborative evidence. One result, as we know, has been a veritable witch hunt against people in media and entertainment, especially, for historic offences which occurred during the emergence of ‘the permissive society’ in the sixties and seventies and subsequently. The BBC actually hired a helicopter to film a police raid on the home of a Pop icon, still not charged with anything. There was also what might be described as ‘the Saville Effect’, where the Police, with the full support of the Establishment, made a huge posthumous effort to make up for their failure to apprehend or prosecute Saville in his lifetime. It has also become very fashionable to defame the dead, alleging serious sexual offences against long dead clergy, teachers and others in authority, to the point where a policeman stood guard at the gate of the former home (in retirement) of a deceased Prime Minister, whilst another former senior politician died of cancer with the threat of unwarranted proceedings hanging over him, both cases having been since discontinued as nonsense. In a third case, not yet over, I believe, there was wide and unthinking public support for putting a peer suffering with Dementia in the dock.
    I am not comfortable with ‘victim’ culture, or any of the above, but it is the law and the changes are too recent and too PC for there to be much hope of rebalancing any time soon. One result, reflected in this thread, has been to diminish the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It is still there, though.
    What I would take issue with is the description of the Crown Court as “elaborate, archaic and chaotic”. Was the report written by three first-year law students, who believed every complaint they heard, didn’t really understand what was going on and were frightened by ‘wigs and gowns’? Procedure has been much streamlined in my lifetime and I would not describe it as ‘elaborate’, nor ‘archaic’; neither did I witness any chaos.
    I have written enough to show how I feel about the accused 80 year old’s treatment; it was appalling. I also sympathise with the accused who missed all his meals for a week, but that was a failure on the part of the prisons service, or the agency undertaking transfers of accused persons. The suggestion that a judge only wished to get the proceedings over so he could go to dinner is absurd. Judges have a great deal of work to do out of court. Their days start much earlier than 10.00 a.m. and continue after the court rises. It is also the case that accused and witnesses must appear in person, for good reasons, often for very short periods of time, however far they have had to travel. There is always more than one case on the go, often dozens, in fact. I defy anyone to design a more accommodating and just, but cheaper, system, making the best use of expensive court resources.

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