Published: 05:00, 24 November 2021
| Updated: 15:02, 24 November 2021
An exodus of criminal lawyers under “terrible strain” is hampering attempts to clear the spiralling backlog of Kent’s court cases.
A judge voiced “gravest concerns” over the state of the justice system as it proves impossible to find barristers for some of the county’s most serious hearings.
It comes after more than 40 sets of chambers were contacted to represent a man accused of various rape and sexual assault allegations, but to no avail.
The trial, which involves 25-year-old allegations, has been delayed until June 2022 prompting one rape survivor’s fears justice could be snatched away from victims.
For barristers, long unpaid working hours exacerbated by the pandemic have forced “many to vote with their feet,” in favour of other professions.
“There are a lot of people leaving chambers, they have just had enough,” senior barrister Michael Hillman told Judge Rupert Lowe at Canterbury Crown Court, when asked why lawyers were scarce.
A law firm told Judge Mark Weekes more than 40 sets of chambers were contacted and “a load more by telephone,” in an unsuccessful bid to get representation for a defendant accused of multiple rape counts.
Judge Weekes told the hearing he was forced to move the trial in “the most unfortunate circumstances there could possibly be.”
“I would not be doing my job if I were not to be expressing my gravest concerns,” he said, adding: “I have concern for the alleged victim in the case and the complainant who have been waiting for years.”
Experienced prosecutor Paul Valder highlighted a perceived shift in the system, with high-profile cases previously attracting top lawyers.
“I suspect it may be glib and simplistic (to say) but people are leaving the bar, it is indicative of the terrible strain the bar is under.
"A case like this 20 years ago would have had a Silk and a junior representing the defendant,” he said.
“The whole system is exceptionally stressful from the moment you make that first allegation..."
The process is “exceptionally stressful especially with the delays," a rape survivor has said.
The woman, who must remain anonymous for legal reasons, saw her attacker locked up after three years of delays.
“The whole system is exceptionally stressful from the moment you make that first allegation - will anyone believe me or won’t they?
"It is especially stressful with the delays."
“I wasn’t even sure at times if I could carry on with (the prosecution) during my trial, there were so many times I wanted to pull out.
“The longer it went on the more nervous I felt because I knew a defence lawyer was going to tear me apart when I gave evidence,” she added.
“I knew my memory would fade over time, and that would give the defence more fodder than it otherwise would have had.
“Being raped is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can go through or be forced to relive.
“More delays will see more alleged victims withdraw their support from prosecutions because they just want their lives back.”
The number of rape and sexual assault victims who have waited more than a year for their trial to go through the courts has soared, a report shows.
“More delays will see more alleged victims withdraw their support from prosecutions because they just want their lives back..."
The number of cases leaped from 246 to 1,316 - a 435% increase - between March 2020 and June this year, figures in a National Audit Office report suggest.
The crown court backlog could remain a problem for years, the spending watchdog said.
Meanwhile, criminal and family barristers were most likely to work more than 60 hours a week, a separate study revealed.
They, alongside self-employed and newly qualified barristers are most likely to work unpaid, with women putting in significantly more hours than men, according to the recent Bar Council report.
Barrister John McNamara, secretary of the Criminal Bar Association who practices in the south east told KentOnline: “Barristers have voted with their feet.”
“There is a shortage of criminal barristers across the country. Many have left in large part due to low levels of remuneration.
“During the pandemic barristers were filling in the gaps in the justice system to keep things moving.
“However, we are not paid for work undertaken outside of court, and receive no pay for any work done in preparation for a trial.
“This means many barristers have been advising on cases for the prosecution, and defence without any hope of being paid for hours of legal advice.
“Many barristers have now voted with their feet, and with a huge backlog of cases which pre-dated the pandemic, there are not enough barristers available to prosecute and defend the most serious cases.”
The Ministry of Justice told KentOnline in a statement there was “no evidence barrister numbers were affecting,” the backlog.
Its spokesman added: “Dedicated staff and professionals kept justice moving during the pandemic and barrister numbers are not affecting our recovery.
"We continue to support legal professionals and are spending £477million to improve waiting times and reduce court backlogs.”