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Shropshire judge has concerns over legal system

Telford | News | Published:

The legal profession is in danger of collapse, with fair trials being put at risk because of swingeing cuts, a retiring senior judge has warned, writes Mark Andrews, Shropshire Star's chief feature writer.

The courts and justice departments have not been immune from public austerity cuts and, after a 41-year distinguished legal career in the Midlands, Judge Michael Dudley says he has serious concerns for the future.

"There are so many changes and they are all put at the door of the economic situation," he said. "I am concerned that the Criminal Bar is not remunerated properly and speedily. It needs support because we must not lose the Criminal Bar and there is a serious risk of that happening.

"If we lose the Bar, we lose the protection of the law. If people are not defended properly, the prosecution can get sloppy."

Government cuts have seen some court buildings threatened with closure – with the magistrates courts at Telford and Shrewsbury being granted a reprieve last year, following an earlier recommendation that one should close.

Criminal legal aid fees have been cut on average by 17.5 per cent for solicitors and six per cent for barristers to make £220 million savings.

The number of duty solicitor contracts is being cut from around 1,600 to just 525. Lawyers fear many firms of solicitors will be forced to close and that caseloads will rise. And even jurors are feeling the pinch.

Judge Dudley, who has regularly appeared at Shrewsbury Crown Court since being appointed a circuit judge 11 years ago, warned of jurors being put in difficult and potentially compromising positions.

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He has grave concerns over jurors, witnesses and defendants bumping into each other outside the courtroom because the courts no longer provide lunch to juries.

He said: "My biggest regret is that we have stopped catering for jurors. It is an insult to them.

"We want them to get involved in the judicial process. They have an important job to do but we are not able to feed them. That is unfortunate.

"We now have to send them away for food and if a jury is in retirement, considering their verdict, we lose one and a half hours. That means we lose the equivalent of a day if they are out for four days.

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"As an example, Wolverhampton is such a small place that there is a huge danger of jurors bumping into witnesses or even defendants while using the same facilities as them. I would love to see that redressed."

He is not the first judge in the county to voice concerns about the legal system. In 2013, Shropshire's main judge, Robin Onions, voiced concerns about the length of time it was taking for cases to be heard.

Judge Robin Onions

He said some cases were not coming to court for up to 18 months after the alleged offence had taken place, which was difficult for both defendants and victims, who faced an agonising wait to see justice done.

Judge Onions said some cases had to be moved outside the county to speed them up, and the delays had been exacerbated by cuts to West Mercia Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Judge Onions said: "People can be charged 12 to 18 months before a trial and that's too long. At the moment there is a backlog in sex abuse cases. These victims understandably complain when their cases are aren't dealt with promptly but there's nothing we can do."

The judge said the Crown Prosecution Service had suffered because its Shropshire office had been closed and services were now based in Birmingham or Stoke.

He added: "I am not criticising the police and I am not criticising the CPS but if I find a case that's taken 12 months to get to me I want to know why.

"I am trying to cut this down if I can because I don't think that long waits and delays are compatible with justice. There's no easy solution and people may have to get used to more delays.

"The staff are working as hard as they can and some cases will move to other courts if they have room but beyond that there is a limit to what we can do."

Judge Dudley, who received letters wishing him well from both the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, was speaking after barristers, solicitors and court staff said their fond farewels to him last Friday, the day before his 68th birthday.

High Court Judge Mr Justice Hadden-Cave said: "Judge Dudley has been an unfailingly fair, courteous and just judge, highly regarded by all.

"He will be sorely missed by his colleagues and leaves with the public's gratitude and thanks and our collective warm wishes."

Stephen Linehan, QC, addressing the court on behalf of the Criminal Bar, said: "We hold him in high regard and with deep affection. He is warm, kind and great company. When a barrister, he was universally popular and admired.

"As a judge, he showed courtesy, kindness and understanding."

In a personal comment, Mr Linehan added: "It's been a pleasure to work with you and in front of you. I hope you remember us as kindly as we remember you."

Malcolm Fowler, speaking on behalf of solicitors and their staff, said: "No-one wants him to go."

Bristol-born Judge Dudley read law at Birmingham University between 1965 to 1968 and met wife-to-be Barbara there.

He began his judicial career in 1984 when he was appointed a deputy stipendiary. He became an assistant Recorder in 1993, was promoted to Recorder six years later and was appointed a circuit judge in 2003.

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