Delays in cases caused by the barrister strike has been ‘anticipated for some time’, a judge said as he refused to keep a sexual assault suspect in custody.

The man, who we are not naming, could not stand trial this month as his lawyer was taking part in the Criminal Bar Association’s indefinite walk-out over rates paid for Legal Aid-funded cases.

Judge Ian Pringle KC, the honorary Recorder of Oxford, refused to extend the ‘custody time limits’ on Wednesday until after the defendant’s re-arranged trial date in late October.

Although recognising that the Crown Prosecution Service had acted with ‘all due diligence and expedition’ in making their application, he said neither the seriousness of the allegations or the delays caused by the barrister strike were ‘good and sufficient cause’ to extend the custody time limits.

In a longer, written judgement, Judge Pringle said of the Crown’s claim there were ‘good grounds for keeping this defendant in custody’: “This may, of course, be so, but they do not amount to a ‘good and sufficient cause’ so that a time limit introduced by the government for those defendants held on remand may be automatically extended because there has been a failure to solve a long-running dispute with those who represent legally aided defendants.

“If the situation was as the prosecution contend, then the grounds under which they were originally remanded in custody under the Bail Act would simply justify extending the custody time limit on an almost perpetual basis.”

He added: “The current position is that the vast majority of barristers who regularly undertake legally aided criminal defence work are refusing to attend court.

“Their action actually began in April of this year and has grown in its scope at regular intervals of which they have given considerable notice.

“The situation in which the criminal courts in this country now find themselves has been anticipated for a long time.”

The Oxford case is the latest in a number of refusals by judges across England to extend custody time limits.

Several decisions are currently being considered by a High Court judge after the Crown Prosecution Service asked for the circuit judges’ decisions to be judicially reviewed. The matter was due to be heard on Thursday but, after the Legal Aid Agency failed to process emergency applications for funding for the lawyers, the case was put back until the end of September, it was reported.

Following Judge Pringle’s decision, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We fast-tracked legislation to increase criminal barristers’ fees by 15 per cent, part of an extra £135 million going into legal aid in line with the recommendations of the independent review.

 “Judges make bail decisions independently of government.”

The 15 per cent rate rise offered by the government would apply to cases that entered the system from the end of September. However, because barristers are only paid at the conclusion of a case, they may not see the benefit of the rise for several years.

The Criminal Bar Association, which represents barristers, has called for Legal Aid rates to be increased by 25 per cent and for any rise to apply to cases already in the system. In August, four-fifths of more than 2,000 CBA members balloted voted to escalate their industrial action and begin an all-out walk-out of publicly-funded cases. That indefinite strike began on September 5.

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This story was written by Tom Seaward. He joined the team in 2021 as Oxfordshire's court and crime reporter.  

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