Beyond the glossy world of celebrity trials, the wheels of justice have virtually ground to a halt
Like all good detective stories, the tale of Wagatha Christie ended with a twist. Coleen Rooney failed to turn up for the final day of the libel trial that has gripped the nation, choosing to go on a long-planned family holiday rather than watch the curtain fall on this particularly excruciating drama. The sight of one footballer’s wife accusing another of leaking intimate snippets from her private Instagram account to the Sun has become a guilty pleasure for many, a bit of light relief from worrying about the gas bill; two parts juicy celebrity gossip to one part fashion parade, it has teetered irresistibly on the brink of farce. Yet beneath the froth there were glimpses of something darker, a reminder of the human toll that judgment takes on all involved.
A tearful Rebekah Vardy, who launched this case after Rooney had publicly implicated her in the leaking of stories about the latter’s private life, told the court that her former agent had been “driven to suicidal thoughts by the proceedings”, which have been rumbling on since 2019. Coleen’s husband, Wayne, meanwhile said he had watched her “really struggle” with the legal battle hanging over her head for two and a half years, becoming “a different mother, a different wife”. All the Rooneys wanted, he argued, was to put it all behind them. Your heart may not bleed for wealthy wives who could surely have settled their differences less painfully in private. But if these two found it stressful waiting for the chance to prove who leaked what from whose Instagram stories, then imagine how the victims of far greater injustices feel about waiting years for their day in court.
Beyond the glossy high-profile world of celebrity trials, the wheels of justice for ordinary people now grind so slowly as to be visibly seizing up. One of the more depressing factors in the case of the unnamed MP arrested and then bailed this week on suspicion of rape and other offences is that the allegations were reportedly first made in January 2020. It has taken almost two and a half years even to reach this stage of investigation; the MP has not at the time of writing been charged, but if any trial is to follow, then it could still be many months away. The case of his former parliamentary colleague Charlie Elphicke, convicted in 2020 of sexual assault, took three years to reach court.
These are just the delays we hear about, but countless other ordinary people are now stacked in the same cruel holding pattern: by the end of last December, 25% of cases in England and Wales had been waiting a year or more to come to court, and the number waiting more than a year had more than trebled since March 2020, when Britain first locked down. Behind those numbers are victims who can’t move on from a trauma they know they’ll have to relive in court, witnesses worrying that with every passing day their memories grow hazier, and defendants, too, whose lives are in limbo. The Conservative party’s handling of the unnamed MP, who has not been suspended but merely asked to refrain from attending parliament, may be partly coloured by fear of yet another byelection. But it also reflects a dilemma facing other employers over how to deal fairly with someone who may or may not be guilty, when it could be years before the courts produce a definitive answer.
This week the four inspectors variously of prisons, probation, the Crown Prosecution Service and the constabulary gave evidence to the Commons justice select committee, over what they say is the now parlous state of the criminal justice system, post-pandemic.
Some prisoners are still spending upwards of 22 hours a day locked up in their cells, the committee heard, leaving no time for meaningful rehabilitation and raising the likely risk of reoffending. In more than half of probation cases examined, assessment and management of the risk of harm offenders posed to the public was deemed unsatisfactory. The courts meanwhile are struggling not only with a backlog of cases built up well before the pandemic, but with a mutiny among criminal lawyers that now threatens to bring the system to its knees.
A world away from Vardy v Rooney, with its suave and formidably expensive QCs, the everyday business of the criminal courts relies heavily on lawyers paid by the state to defend people who can’t afford their own representation. For duty solicitors, that means racing to police stations in the middle of the night to take critical decisions on behalf of often difficult, occasionally violent, clients and then slogging through the casework in return for fees that (according to a government-commissioned review) have fallen overall by up to 45% in real terms since 1996. Some junior lawyers are now effectively paying for the privilege of working, according to the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, whose members will next week start refusing to take on low-paid cases such as burglary in protest. The association’s president, Hesham Puri, a criminal legal aid solicitor himself, says that “our goodwill has run out and will no longer prop up a broken justice system”.
Criminal barristers have already imposed a form of work-to-rule, refusing to take on last-minute cases returned by colleagues, which only increases delays. The lord chief justice warned this week that “more and more cases are not going ahead because either the prosecution or the defence have not been able to find an advocate”. Even court buildings themselves are starting to crumble: one sketchwriter sniffily described the courtroom in which Vardy met Rooney as somewhat “mouldy” but in some lowlier courts, clerks are putting buckets out to catch rain leaking through the roof.
It’s a cliche to say of the kind of celebrity trials that end up dragging both sides through the mud – be that the Rooney-Vardy circus or the vitriolic grudge match currently being fought out between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard – that nobody wins but the lawyers. For ordinary people caught up in Britain’s underfunded criminal justice system, however, it’s increasingly more accurate to say that nobody wins full stop. Not the victims whose agony is prolonged by delays; not defendants waiting to clear a stain from their name; not even the lawyers, apparently now voting with their feet for more lucrative work. Boris Johnson is said to be keen to focus on crime now that the Metropolitan police has finished investigating his own Covid law-breaking. If so, it doesn’t take Agatha Christie to work out where he should start.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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