Like many of the legal fraternity I have spent this weekend reading the Secret Barrister’s “Stories of the Law and how its Broken”.   The book is about criminal law and criminal procedure, however there is much for civil litigators to read and think about. Since there have been, and will be, numerous reviews looking at the book from the viewpoint of criminal practice  I decided to look at distinct aspects of the book from the viewpoint of the civil lawyer. Starting with an issue that cuts across most areas of civil practice – listing.

“If you were a criminal mastermind trying to design a system to deter victims of crime from engaging with the authorities, you would struggle to devise something better.”


How to get away with mugging

SB introduces us to the case of Matthew. Matthew was walking outside his gym one evening when he felt a knife in his back, someone stole his mobile phone and ran off. The defendant was caught re-handed with the phone, but is running “the laughable and easily disprovable offence” that the phone was handed over voluntarily.

Matthew duly arrives at court and spends the day eating unexciting biscuits in the waiting room. There is no court available and the case is adjourned for eight months.  Matthew turns up and the same sorry scenario happens again.  On the third occasion Matthew loses heart, he doesn’t appear. The prosecution throws its hand in.

Lets just move the trial centre

Another example is Hana. A young female shopkeeper who is threatened with a rusty screwdriver when her shop was robbed. She attends court, closing the shop for the day. At significant (and non-refundable) personal expense she waited at court from 9.30 to 3.00 pm to be told that her trial had “floated to another court centre fourteen miles away”.

She then spent £30 of her own money on a taxi to the station, a return ticket and a taxi to the court. There she is told the judge had taken one look at the case, assessed the case was longer than the court could accommodate and adjourned it for a further eight months.

As SB notes:

If you were a criminal mastermind trying to design a system to deter victims of crime from engaging with the authorities, you would struggle to devise something better.”


The listing of hearings is a public function. It is carried out by public servants who should be responsible to the public. The reality is that they are not.  Listing issues are treated as inevitable and insurmountable.  This applies as much in civil and family as it does in criminal proceedings.

Every day Twitter is full of legal practitioners commenting on listing.

So barrister Sarah Vine, tweeting last week,

“Meanwhile, here at Snaresbrook Crown Court, the list office have taken the innovative decision to list 5 PTRs as floaters, keeping 10 barristers, 5 defendants & 5 police officers waiting at court all day on the off-chance that a judge will become free to deal w/ a 10 min hearing”

Civil and family hearings can be just as disrupted. Last week I travelled 114 miles (and my client travelled 200 miles) to attend a trial to find that the judge had two essentially full-day cases listed before him at the same time. The other trial had priority because it had been “bumped” on a previous occasion. We went away with a promise that we would have “priority” next time it was listed.

Paul Gardener reports on listing issues in the Employment Tribunal.

“Employment Tribunal in Cambridge last March. 4 day hearing with numerous witnesses and a nervous client cancelled the day before because “no available judge”. It took 6 months to reconvene. It was due to start on a Monday but on the Friday we were again adjourned. We finally got on recently in another court. 12 Months after the trial was supposed to commence and a very world weary client”


It is difficult, if not impossible, to see why listing  decisions that have a profound impact on the delivery of justice should be allowed to go unnoticed and unreported.  I have set up a “Court Watch” page so that practitioners can report listing issues.

I would encourage practitioners who have clients, or who represent victims, to encourage them to complain – openly and vociferously if they are shunted out of court or to a far-flung court centre. The media, and MPs should know.  It is not a private matter it is a matter of profound public importance.

If the excuse is a lack of resources then it is even more important that the issue is brought into the open.  The ridiculously high court fees mean that in 2017 HMCTS made a surplus of £100 million.    Publicising the issue should help ensure that this money goes towards making sure that trials start promptly and properly.  The Matthews and Hanas of this world deserve that.