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Home Breaking The Prisons are Full and We Can’t Bring Offenders to Trial, Says Barrister

The Prisons are Full and We Can’t Bring Offenders to Trial, Says Barrister

The UK prison system is in crisis. The incarcerated population has surged by 7 per cent since 2018, leading to nearly full prisons. Simultaneously, the court system is grappling with an unprecedented backlog of cases, currently at a 23-year high with 67,533 cases awaiting trial, a staggering 105 per cent increase since 2018.

The Prisons Are Full And We Can’t Bring Offenders To Trial, Says Barrister

James Oliveira-Agnew, a criminal barrister with 16 years of experience, specializing in sexual offences, sheds light on the dire situation and its impact on ordinary people seeking justice.

The Prisons Are Full And We Can’t Bring Offenders To Trial, Says Barrister

A Day in the Life of a Barrister

The Prisons Are Full And We Can’t Bring Offenders To Trial, Says Barrister

James Oliveira-Agnew works 12 to 14-hour days, often until 11 pm, to combat the growing backlog of court cases. The shortage of barristers means he frequently juggles multiple cases, though he can only handle one trial at a time, each lasting five to ten days.

The Prisons Are Full And We Can’t Bring Offenders To Trial, Says Barrister

“There aren’t enough barristers,” James explains. “Each week, I have two or three cases in my diary, but obviously, I can only do one trial at a time.”

The Prisons Are Full And We Can’t Bring Offenders To Trial, Says Barrister

Prison Overcrowding and Its Impact

The overcrowded prisons exacerbate the situation. Judges must follow sentencing guidelines and cannot issue lenient sentences for serious crimes. However, a recent case, R v Ali, set a precedent for suspending custodial sentences of two years or less due to the lack of prison space.

Knife crime has risen by about 7 or 8 per cent in the past year, but custodial sentences for such offences have dropped by about 20 per cent. This means many individuals caught with knives are not being incarcerated.

Logistical Challenges and Trial Delays

The shortage of barristers and court capacity issues lead to frequent travel between courts. James’ local court is in Guildford, but his last four trials have been in Salisbury. One trial was cancelled because the defendant, held in HMP Wandsworth, could not be transported to Salisbury, and a witness from Guildford refused to travel during train strikes.

“We started to notice this backlog back in 2018,” James recalls. “It’s been bubbling away, and the number of cases has been steadily rising. Now, I am currently receiving trials that will start in 2026.”

The Human Cost of Delays

James highlights a particularly distressing case involving a defendant charged with sexual activity with his two young grandchildren. The case opened in 2019 and is only scheduled for trial in February 2025, leaving the victims and their families in limbo for years.

Systemic Issues and Staffing Shortages

While there are enough courtrooms, the shortage of judges and prosecuting barristers exacerbates the backlog. Judges, overwhelmed with cases, find the role increasingly unappealing, leading to fewer people pursuing this career path.

In 2022, the number of barristers practising full-time in publicly funded criminal law declined by more than 10 per cent. The late assignment of trials means barristers often prepare cases overnight without additional compensation, a situation that has become the norm out of necessity.

The Growing Remand Population

The remand population—those awaiting trial—continues to grow, straining prison capacity. This impacts victims and defendants alike. Victims of serious crimes, such as rape, face long waits for trials, while defendants on remand endure years of uncertainty.

“The impact of this is obvious,” James states. “As a complainant or victim, you’re going to have to wait a long time for your matter to come to trial. And on the defendant’s side, they’re waiting two to three years for a trial, which can affect their ability to remember details accurately.”

A Dire Need for Reform

The backlog in the justice system is a growing problem, leaving victims and defendants unrepresented and prolonging their suffering. Urgent reforms and increased staffing are necessary to address the systemic issues plaguing the UK’s courts and prisons.

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