Dear Fellow Circuiteer,
It’s all downhill from here!
That is not a reference to the fact that it is my birthday (my true age is as you know shrouded in mystery) but to the fact that today marks the half way point of my leadership of the North Eastern Circuit – the finest Circuit.
It has been a very challenging first half as we are all aware. But I think that we should take a moment to reflect on the last 18 months and to do so with a great sense of pride in all that we have achieved. It is often remarked that adversity brings us together and although that has not been physically possible, I hope that you will agree that the spirit of the Circuit has been strengthened by all that we have endured.
Across all of the jurisdictions the North Eastern Circuit has led the way nationally. We have dealt with more work, more efficiently than any other Circuit and we have been at the forefront of finding and developing innovative ways in which to get cases moving again after the pause last March. For example, the model for restarting jury trials with screens that has been rolled out nationally was forged at Leeds Crown Court, our early work to identify civil cases that could be tried remotely resulted in more cases being tried than would otherwise have been the case and nightingale courts have enabled more family cases to be heard than would otherwise have been the case.
Socially we have held a series of virtual messes and other events that have cheered our spirits at some of the darkest times of the pandemic. We have held regular Q and A sessions with our Judges and practitioners exchanging views in an open and constructive forum.
We have formed a North Eastern Circuit Women’s Forum and a North Eastern Circuit Diversity and Equality working group. Both organisations have been doing brilliant work in their areas.
In training and education, we have run online events, in person advocacy training and remote advocacy training. We have welcomed cohorts of new pupils and done all we can to ensure that their pupillages were fulfilling and provided the comprehensive education that is essential.
Let us hope that this month we will see the turning point when we can return to in person events and meet together in the fellowship of the North Eastern Circuit. I can promise you that if circumstances allow us the next 18 months will be full of socially and educational events that will build upon the success of all we have done remotely in the last 18 months.
All of this success of course comes about as a result of your hard work. The incredible work rate of this Circuit and the efficiency with which we deal with our cases is in no small part as a result of the skill and efficiency of the local Bar.
I know as well as anybody just how demanding and frankly exhausting the slog of the last 18 months has been. I appreciate that you are all tired and that you are working to absolute maximum capacity at the moment. I also appreciate the sentiment that the backlog is not a result of COVID but the result of deliberate decisions taken by Government and HMCTS to run down the Courts, close facilities and reduce sitting days.
But – as they say – we are where we are. After many years in which there has been too little work available in the Crown Court at all levels we now face a prolonged period in which there is quite simply more work on Circuit than we – or indeed the Courts - can sensibly manage with the available resources.
How then do we approach this capacity problem? The key is, as always, communication. I have been in very close contact with the Resident Judges and Presiding Judges over the last 18 months and I continue to maintain that dialogue. In recent weeks I have explained to the Lord Chancellor, the Senior Presiding Judge, our own Presiders and the Resident Judges that the Bar is working flat out and is reaching the limit on its capacity to service the work being listed. It is a very fine balance between running the Courts to full capacity (which is in the interests of any advocate who wants to make a decent living) and exceeding that capacity.
The Presiders and the Resident Judges – as always – are keen to engage and to find solutions to problems as they arise. With that in mind I can indicate that over the summer we can expect a reduction in the number of Courts that are sitting each day and the number of cases being tried (not necessarily in every court centre, but certainly across the Circuit as a whole). I am hopeful that should provide some much needed breathing space for us all.
In the meantime, I would encourage the Clerks to communicate – if needs be through myself – particular problem cases or problem periods of work that they do not expect to be able to cover. I have made it clear that it will never be the fault of a clerk or an advocate if there is no-one to prosecute or defend a case during this exceptional period of heavy listing. Any concerns in this regard should be brought to my attention and I will attend before any Judge to deal with any issue that might arise.
I have also pressed hard the message that the constant requirement to comply with orders for written work that really should not be required in modest cases – opening notes are a good example – is tipping an already punishing workload over the edge for many of you. It may not be appreciated that the current fee schemes do not allow any payment for this work unless counsel actually manages to attend the plea or trial hearing and with cases being moved or brought forward at short notice this is not always possible.
That said, we should also look at this period as an opportunity and as a lifeline for the most junior. There will be far more work available than has been the case for many years and far greater opportunities to establish a sustainable career as a result.
I suppose therefore my opening observation was a touch pessimistic. Rather than it being downhill from here let’s say instead that its onwards and upwards (but perhaps with a bit of rest this summer!).
Best Wishes to you all