Published: 12:00, 28 August 2019
| Updated: 12:45, 28 August 2019
Frustration at courts nationwide sitting empty amid rising crime reached Kent last week with a case already dating back two years having to be adjourned until March.
Britain's justice system has been blasted for delays affecting thousands of cases at a time when the government has vowed to tackle record levels of crime.
Richard Atkins QC, chairman of the Bar Council, called it a 'devastating blow' to victims, while other members of the legal profession expressed concerns for defendants also affected by the lengthy wait.
Last Monday, figures for 34 crown court centres - about half of the criminal justice estate - revealed 127 courtrooms out of 260 lay idle.
These figures included London's Old Bailey and Snaresbrook, with the latter having only six of 20 courtrooms open last Thursday and rape trials given start dates for the end of June next year.
The two crown courts in Kent have also been severely affected. No more than half of eight courtrooms at Maidstone Crown Court - Kent's main legal centre - sat last week.
By Wednesday just two courtrooms were hearing cases and on Thursday, just one courtroom was occupied with hearings shared between two judges.
A similar situation was expected this week.
But the impact on defendants was witnessed when a 48-year-old man accused of destroying trees on woodland in Dunkirk, Kent, was told by a judge that 'with regret' his trial, due to start yesterday would now not go ahead until March 30.
The defendant, having been told the reason for the delay was 'lack of court time', was visibly and audibly exasperated when told the new trial date.
His barrister then informed the court that his client faced a charge which dated back to August 2017, and had waited until November last year to learn when his trial would be held, only for it to now be adjourned for another seven months.
"Perhaps you can appreciate his frustration," said Donal Lawler, defending. "It was fixed (the trial date) weeks ago and has been hanging over him for two years."
But when Mr Lawler asked if the delay was specifically due to a lack of recorders - junior, part-time judges- being given court sitting hours, Judge Philip St John-Stevens said: "I don't know. I'm not privy to that."
The barrister continued to press his point when, having been told by the judge that the possibility of it being heard at another court had been considered, he replied: "All courts are having similar problems because of lack of sitting days."
A reference to the number of already outstanding cases at Maidstone was made in the same courtroom during an earlier application to adjourn a rape trial, also due to start on Tuesday.
Judge Adele Williams told the court that trials were 'stacked up' waiting to be heard and, if the application was granted, it would delay the case until January.
The survey of courts affected by the closures was coordinated by Nottingham-based criminal barrister Jonathan Dunne, who has now set up a Twitter account @Courtsidle as 'A place to report the under-use of Crown Courts in England and Wales'.
"There is a deliberate and aggressive squeeze on court capacity by the government to save money..." Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association
Courts this time of year are known to be quieter than other months as judges take holidays.
However, their absences are usually covered by recorders to enable courtrooms to continue hearing cases.
This year's closures have therefore led to accusations that it is a cost-cutting measure.
Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said: "There is a deliberate and aggressive squeeze on court capacity by the government to save money."
Meanwhile a career prosecutor told KentOnline: "There has never been a better time to be a crook."
But HM Courts and Tribunals Service has denied there is a shortage of judges in the crown courts, stating waiting times for trials are at their shortest since 2014.
Concerns have also been raised in recent months about the thousands of suspects being released under investigation with no fixed time limit, and cases being directed to other courts, often out of the county where the alleged crime took place.
Since 2010, 295 courts across England and Wales have closed under a Ministry of Justice austerity drive, including half of all magistrates courts.
The CBA has also previously complained that recorders have seen their court sitting allocations cut and so are effectively on zero-hours contracts.