MP fears for legal system

THE English legal system is grossly out of date and in urgent need of modernisation if it is to meet the demands of a 21st century society, a Suffolk MP has warned.

THE English legal system is grossly out of date and in urgent need of modernisation if it is to meet the demands of a 21st century society, a Suffolk MP has warned.

However, last night court bosses defended the process claiming the current structure strikes the right balance between delivering effective justice and safeguarding the rights of victims and witnesses.

They were speaking out after Tory MP David Ruffley heavily criticised the state of the court system saying the shortness of the working day made it inefficient and led to an unnecessary amount of backlogged trials which were delayed because there was no time to deal with them.

The Bury St Edmunds representative has now called for longer hours to be implemented to minimise disruption on the lives of victims, witnesses and jurors as well as help clear the high numbers of outstanding cases.

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According to the Court Service annual report for last year at Ipswich Crown Court there were 184 outstanding cases in 2004/05, a drop of 28 from 2003/04 but higher than the 166 outstanding trials four years ago.

Meanwhile the average waiting time for a trial at Ipswich Crown Court has risen from under twelve weeks to fifteen weeks in the last four years.

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Mr Ruffley said: “I just don't get why the courts seem to sit for little more than half the time that most of us have to work during an ordinary day. In a regular job you work nine to five or sometimes longer but that doesn't seem to apply in the court system.

“The court sits from 10am until 1pm and then knocks off for lunch before reconvening at 2pm until 4pm or 4.30pm. They work a much shorter day than the rest of us.

“The consequence of this part time working is that there is a back log of cases - justice is not dispensed quickly. Victims wait too long, the lives of jurors and witnesses are disrupted for longer than necessary and those accused of breaking the law must wonder whether society really takes their crimes seriously at all.

“I'm not suggesting we spend less time on cases and rush them through but I just think an extension to the working day, or maybe even weekend sittings, would be sensible so a two week trial could fit into one and some of the backlog of cases could be cleared.”

Mr Ruffley's comments were made following his own experiences as a juror at Southwark Crown Court in London last month.

He continued: “When I was summoned for jury service I thought it would be an interesting experience but sadly I saw inefficiency in the court system that simply would not be acceptable in any well-run school or business.

“I don't want to seem as if I'm moaning because I see jury service as a civic duty and I feel very privileged to be given the opportunity but we need to get serious about making improvements and having a justice system which is fit for the modern age.”

However those involved in the county's legal system said the current way of working was effective and had the welfare of victims, witnesses and jurors at its heart.

Ross Taylor, court manager at Ipswich Crown Court, said: “Here in Suffolk we start at 10am for a number of reasons but a very important one is because people have to come from such a long way away.

“We deal with cases involving people from in the north of the county such as Lowestoft and they would have to get up at the crack of dawn to get here for 9am. Witnesses and jurors don't want to be travelling early in the morning and then arriving home at an unsociable hour.

“Also what happens in court can affect a person's liberty and we have found that people's attention spans cannot cope with a longer day. By having shorter hours people can keep their concentration, be more alert and as a result make better informed decisions.

“With regards to our backlog of cases it's not that bad compared to other courts. I am aware that we have got one, and of course we would like it to be less, but it takes time for a case to come to trial. It's about striking the correct balance. Yes a longer day would probably help us clear some of the outstanding cases but this would mean people having to be away from home longer and their concentration waning.”

Meanwhile Ken Caley, Chief Crown Prosecutor for Suffolk, said the Crown Prosecution Service worked closely with its Criminal Justice Service partners, including both the police and courts, to deal with all cases as expeditiously as possible and this performance had been recognised as amongst the best in the country.

And John Doylend, area manager of Victim Support Suffolk, said he could understand Mr Ruffley's point of view but the shorter days were often better for witnesses and those seeking justice.

Chris Harper, court manager at Southwark added: “Mr Ruffley certainly did not raise any concerns with us while he was here at the court on jury service. We have a complaints procedure clearly displayed as well as a juror's suggestion book for feedback but no complaints were recorded. We have many MPs who attend jury service who are all pleased with what they find.”

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