Empty Sussex courts and cases ‘going into the long grass’: Lawyers call for change in law and investment to combat justice system concerns

Sussex courts are often ‘deserted’ – with justice system cuts and a change in the law to blame, criminal lawyers have argued.

Responding to this newspaper’s investigation into police resources in digital forensics, legal professionals highlighted wider issues with the justice system. Read more about our investigation here

Lewes Crown Court

Lewes Crown Court

Andrew Bishop, managing director of Sussex solicitors Bishop and Light, said a law change had led to cases ‘going into the long grass’ and ‘prosecutions plummeting’.

While suspects used to be bailed for a set time, they could now be ‘released under investigation’ with no time limit.

Speaking last month, Mr Bishop said: “At Lewes Crown Court last week there was one case.

“When someone was released on bail what would typically happen with a case where they needed to carry out digital examinations was that they would bail them for three months, and often extend it.

Neal Gozzett, of Monan Gozzett solicitors

Neal Gozzett, of Monan Gozzett solicitors

“Every three months the officer in charge had to justify why they were extending bail – and I expect they would chase the investigations.

“Now, they are ‘released under investigation’ and there is no time limit. Now cases are going into the long grass.

“What we have found is that the number of prosecutions has somewhat fallen off a cliff. Magistrates’ and crown courts are deserted.”

‘Lack of accountability’

Andrew Bishop, managing director of Bishop and Light Solicitors

Andrew Bishop, managing director of Bishop and Light Solicitors

Mr Bishop’s concern has been mirrored across the country.

A nationwide Law Society campaign has called for reforms, including time limits for investigations.

Neal Gozzett, senior partner at Monan Gozzett Solicitors, Arundel, said: “The problem with being released under investigation is there is no accountability for the officers. As suspects are not on bail they don’t have to justify why they are taking so long.

“Cases are taking way too long to investigate – I have a case over a year old and the matter hasn’t even gone to the Crown Prosecution Service yet.”

Idle courts

The Idle Courts Twitter account was set up by criminal barrister Jonathan Dunne in August to track the level of under-used courtrooms nationwide.

Using official records, it recorded only five of ten Sussex crown courtrooms – in Hove, Lewes and Brighton – in use last Wednesday (October 23).

Further research by this newspaper found between Friday, October 18 and Friday, October 25, just five of the courtrooms were in use every day apart from October 21, when seven were used.

Mr Dunne said suspects released under investigation was part of the problem – but others contributed.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) limits on the number of days courts could sit and a reduction in the use of part-time judges – recorders – were also factors, he argued.

“The system from top to bottom needs a fair bit of investment,” he said.

“There is no point having 20,000 extra police officers and more prison places if you haven’t got the judges trying the cases.”

Government responds

A HM Courts and Tribunal Service spokesman said the MoJ received a ‘five per cent real terms increase’ in the last spending review for 2020/21. They said £55million had been allocated to respond to the demand from extra officers.

They added: “The number of cases dealt with in the crown court is at the lowest since 2000 and waiting times are at their shortest since 2014.

“Sitting days are based on the number of cases we expect the court to hear and will be reviewed throughout the year and this approach has allowed us to half the number of outstanding cases in England and Wales over the last four years.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment in regards to concerns over suspects being released under investigation.