A judge painted a ‘desperate’ picture of the state of the criminal justice system as he was forced to adjourn a domestic violence trial because there was no barrister available to prosecute it.

The five day trial of the coercive and controlling behaviour allegation was due to begin on Monday – having already been adjourned last year because of the pandemic

At Oxford Crown Court on Friday, Judge Ian Pringle QC was told that the barrister due to prosecute the case was no longer available to deal with the matter. Despite spending two days looking for someone to take the brief, the lawyer’s clerks had been unable to find another barrister to prosecute the case.

Judge Pringle, the honorary recorder of Oxford, said: “This is a very sad picture but it is not an original picture because unfortunately up and down the country this is becoming an increasing problem.”

The allegations faced by the defendant date back to 2017. He was charged with controlling his partner in 2019 and a statement filed by his lawyers that September explaining his defence to the charge.

He was due to stand trial in March 2020 but the case had to be taken out of the list when jury trials were halted during the first lockdown.

The case was relisted earlier this year with the trial to take place this month – more than two years after he pleaded not guilty to the charge.

On Friday, Judge Pringle was asked for the trial to be vacated due to a lack of any qualified barrister to prosecute the case.

The judge said: “The inability of the prosecution to find any suitable counsel who can prosecute this case means this application is made today.

“As I say it is a desperate picture but not an original one as I say it is reflected up and down the country. I can’t see any alternative but to take this case out on Monday, there being no one [to prosecute it].

“It is with deep regret that I do so and I hope that this trial can be re-fixed as soon as possible.”

Judge Pringle lifted restrictions on the reporting of the pre-trial hearing after an application from the Oxford Mail that it was in the public interest.

The trial is expected to be heard early next summer.

Last month, a judge at Canterbury Crown Court expressed the ‘gravest concerns’ about the criminal justice system after he was forced to adjourn a rape trial as there was no advocate available to represent the defendant.

Judge Mark Weekes was told that 40 sets of barristers’ chambers were contacted to try and find someone to cover the case. “I would not be doing my job if I were not to be expressing my gravest concerns,” he said, KentOnline reported.

Across the country, barristers are said to be leaving the criminal bar citing low pay, long hours and difficult working conditions.

John McNamara of barristers' group the Criminal Bar Association said: "We are regularly receiving reports of there being no lawyers to prosecute or defend serious criminal cases. There is a shortage of criminal barristers across the country. Many criminal barristers have left in large part due to low levels of remuneration.

"During the pandemic barristers were filling in the gaps in the justice system to keep things moving. However, we are not paid for work undertaken outside of court and receive no pay for any work done in preparation for a trial.

“This means for 18 months barristers have been advising on cases for the prosecution and defence without any hope of being paid, for hours of complex legal advice. The latest data indicates many criminal barristers work more than 60 hours a week.

"Many barristers have now voted with their feet, and with a huge backlog of cases which predated the pandemic, there are not enough barristers available to prosecute and defend the most serious cases."

The Ministry of Justice suggested there was 'no evidence' to suggest a shortage of barristers was impacting outstanding cases.

“While there is no evidence barrister numbers are impacting our courts’ recovery from the pandemic, we are spending almost half a billion pounds to reduce backlogs and deliver the swift access to justice victims deserve," a spokeswoman said.

“This in on top of boosting victim support funding to £185m a year – an uplift of 85 per cent - helping to increase the number of specialist sexual and domestic violence advisors to over 1,000.”

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