17-June-20 Interview with a Crown Court Judge

Photo by Sam Jean from Pexels

Today’s blog is an interview with a ‘Circuit Judge’ who acts as a Crown Court Judge in England and Wales.  The interview explores a typical day; route into the job; enabling justice for victims and defendants; and the impact of the COVID-lockdown.  My sincere thanks to the contributor for their time in preparing this.

  1. What does a typical day look like for you?

Ordinarily (before Covid-19 lockdown) I would attend the Court building towards 9am, with the Court sitting itself starting at 10am.  I have tried to prepare most cases before the day, since we are provided with lists in advance and have access to all the case documents and materials on a digital case system, but the first hour is spent dealing with any outstanding preparation and reading additional documents / reports etc which may have been uploaded at late notice.  The listing of the Court will vary between trials, which may be in progress for a few days – sometimes weeks, or other general business, such as dealing with procedural hearings and sentencing cases.  More defendants plead guilty than not guilty, since generally cases do not reach the Crown Court without there being a significant amount of evidence, so there are usually quite a number of sentencing hearings each day and throughout the week.

By about 4pm it is generally the case that the Court sitting day will have finished and this provides some time later in the afternoon to prepare cases for the following day.  Although I do have to complete some paperwork and can deal with certain matters administratively, the main focus of the work is physically being in Court and making decisions in a variety of different cases – as I have said above, these range from initial hearings where pleas are entered, through to conducting trials with a jury and numerous sentencing hearings.

  1. What was your route into this role and is the job what you expected?

I am a “Circuit Judge”, which in my case means being a Crown Court judge dealing exclusively with criminal prosecutions.   There are Circuit Judges in other jurisdictions, dealing with a variety of civil and family law matters.  My route into the role arose from a long prior history of working as a criminal law defence solicitor over a period of more than 30 years.  Judges are appointed from the ranks of existing practitioners.  Generally speaking, in relation to the Crown Court, barristers are more likely to apply and to be appointed than solicitors.  However, I was a solicitor for all of those years, so this makes my appointment one of the less common ones.  People can apply to become a part-time Judge (either in the Crown Court or the Magistrates’ Court) after at least seven years of practice, which would normally be expected to have taken place in the relevant jurisdiction.  You do not have to wait as long as 30 years!

In my case, I made various applications over the years since I knew that the work would interest me and I saw it as a career progression.  At first I was not successful, but in 2006 I was appointed as a part-time judge in the Magistrates’ Court – so my professional life was split between my day job working in a criminal defence firm and then fulfilling bookings to do judging work away from the area in which I was normally based.  About 10 years later I was appointed as a part-time judge in the Crown Court and two years after that managed to obtain a full-time appointment, which I started in 2018.  All judicial appointments are made through a long and detailed process of application which is administered by the “Judicial Appointments Commission”.  Anyone interested in researching what would be involved could find out more information from their website.

As to whether it is what I expected, I would say the answer is simply “yes”.  This is partly because as a practitioner in criminal law I knew what judges have to do and had a pretty clear insight into their work – but also because I had been doing the job part-time for a number of years before obtaining the full-time appointment.

  1. How well do you think the justice system in England and Wales operates, including in terms of (a) ensuring the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted? and (b) delivering what victims want?

I think that this is a mixed picture.  As I mentioned above, cases tend not to reach a Court without there being a reasonable amount of evidence.  Sometimes that evidence is just obvious and overwhelming – such as somebody being caught in the act, or leaving their fingerprints and DNA at the scene of a burglary.  Sometimes the evidence comes down to dispute between individuals as to who did what to whom, such as in a fight or other personal dispute.  It has to be remembered that most people in the system overall will plead guilty, because they are often faced with clear and obvious evidence.  So to that extent, many of the guilty are convicted by their own admission.

Where cases are disputed and reach trial, the inherent issue in the trial process is that those making the decision as to what happened (whether say Magistrates in the Magistrates’ Court, or juries in the Crown Court) were not there at the time of the event in question!  So they have to interpret as best they can what happened from such evidence as there is and how that is presented.  Further, the “standard of proof” in a criminal trial is that the Court must be “sure” of guilt before they can convict.  This is a high standard on the basis that people should not be convicted of criminal offences and potentially sent to prison on the basis that they might have done something, or even that they probably did something.  By definition, this will mean that a certain number of guilty people will be acquitted.  From my experience it is more likely that a guilty person will be acquitted than that a innocent person will be convicted.  One would like to think that if the accused person is innocent then it should not be possible for the evidence to demonstrate that they are guilty.  However, of course this is not always the case and there are many examples over the years of miscarriages of justice, both publicly well-known and otherwise.  Nonetheless, whilst it is not possible to access to reliable data, I would suggest from my experience that convictions of the innocent are comparatively rare.

It is difficult to be confident as to how far the system “delivers what victims want”.  In many cases, this will be achieved but inevitably, in view of that high standard of proof, many victims will know that their assailant or perpetrator simply “got away with it”.  Indeed, many cases do not even reach the Courts if it is felt that the evidence just is not there to support a prosecution.  Generally, as a society, we have been guided by the view that it is better that a guilty person goes free rather than that an innocent person should be convicted.  When defendants are convicted (or plead guilty) I appreciate that victims may feel that the sentences of the Court are inadequate.  We have a problematically overcrowded prison population and the Courts very much try to use prison as a last resort and then only for the minimum time that can be properly justified.  This will lead to victims being disappointed on occasions when they see the perpetrator keep their liberty or not be sent to prison for as long as they might have hoped.  The Courts do take into account the views of victims, particularly in terms of the impact of the offence by way of “personal statements” that victims are encouraged to make, but the victim cannot as such direct the sentence.

  1. What challenges has the justice system in England and Wales faced since the COVID-19 lockdown?

The simple answer to this is that the Covid-19 lockdown has fundamentally affected the running of the Courts, particularly in relation to jury trials in the Crown Court.  It is impossible to keep people 2 metres apart from each other in most Courts up and down the country.  Some trials have recently (June 2020) resumed tentatively in a few Court centres where special arrangements have been possible to use multiple Court rooms on a single case, but most Courts cannot facilitate that.  As a result, all trials were stopped for over two months and the backlog in the system now is very severe.  For some time to come, the Courts will (eventually) be trying to catch up and this will result in matters being dealt with many months and years after the event in question.  It is a very serious problem.  The Court where I am based has not conducted any jury trials since mid-March, which at the time of writing is now three months, and there is no clear indication as to when we will be able to start again.

In terms of other cases, those not involving trials, there are still many delays and adjournments.  The Court has tried to minimise the number of individuals attending Court by using video-link technology, so most lawyers now appear “remotely” rather than in person.  Various defendants have had issues attending Court as a result of lockdown – so delays are in existence across the board at the present time.  The Court simply cannot hear as many cases per day as it used to, since all hearings now have to be timetabled for video-link appointments and everything simply takes longer.  Before Covid-19, if I had a busy list, all the defendants and lawyers would be milling around Court at the same time, and it would be possible to call cases on quickly as soon as they were ready and without the need for specific timetabling on the day.

  1. How far do you think the lockdown experience will have longer-term implications for how justice is delivered going forward?

The main issue here is delay.  Courts will be ending up sentencing people many months, and indeed years, after their offence was committed.  In many cases, this will benefit the defendant – a Court may well have sent someone to prison if they had been dealt with reasonably close to the time of their offence, but may find it much more problematic to do so after such a long delay.  Equally, there are certain defendants remanded in custody because of the nature and seriousness of the alleged offence or because of their record, who will be held on remand and without a conclusion to their case for far longer than would otherwise ever have been the case.

So, the delay in itself can affect the outcome one way or the other.  I do however think that the increased use of technology and video communications will be an advantage in some respects.  Looking ahead, even when the crisis is over, it will be helpful to have more matters dealt with remotely where possible – cutting down on excessive travel and expense for lawyers in particular.  I am sure that there will be solicitors and barristers hoping that they will be able to continue to take advantage of these arrangements in the future where possible.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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