Legal profession facing 'collapse', warns top Wolverhampton judge
The legal profession is in danger of collapse with fair trials being put at risk because of swingeing cuts, a senior judge has warned.
The courts and justice departments have not been immune from public austerity cuts and after a 41-year distinguished legal career 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 - such as Dudley Magistrates' Court - while others, including Halesowen and West Bromwich have already been axed.
Criminal legal aid fees have been cut on average by 17.5 per cent for solicitors and six per cent to make £220m 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 sat at Wolverhampton Crown Court for the last seven years, warned of jurors being put in difficult and potentially compromising positions.
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.
"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."
Judge Dudley hit headlines in 2010 when he spoke up for jailing a prolific thief at a time when the Government was talking about scrapping short prison sentences.
Although he now says he was misquoted, Judge Dudley was praised for jailing Paul Summers, of Lye for a year for persistent shoplifting and theft after the 37-year-old's defence lawyer admitted he was unlikely to adhere to a community sentence
One of his final cases saw him jail brothers Robert Williams from Mill Road, Walsall and Scott Williams of Primrose Meadow, Heath Hayes for 10 years each for a savage attack in which a man was hit more than 50 times. The victim, who had previously been convicted of assaulting the brothers, aged 29 and 30 respectively was battered with fists and a metal clamp.
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 packed Court 7 at the Crown Court to bid him fond farewell on Friday(23), the day before his 68th birthday.
High Court Judge Mr Justice Hadden-Cave said: "He 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."
Mr 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: "Its 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, confirmed: "No one wants him to go."
Judge John Warner, senior judge at Wolverhampton Crown Court, commented: "The size of the attendance and the number of former members of staff present speaks volumes for the affection in which you are held."
Bristol-born Judge Dudley read law at Birmingham University between 1965 to 1968 and met wife-to-be Barbara there. He then lectured in law at the former Wednesbury College of commerce and Technology - now part of Wolverhampton University - for four years. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1972 and joined No 1 Chambers, Fountain Court in Birmingham, now St Philips Chambers.
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 Judge in 2003. He served at various courts throughout the Midlands before being appointed to Wolverhampton Crown Court.
Judge Dudley, who has two children, Robert and Kate, said: "It has been a real pleasure and honour to work in this court. It was always my favourite. The staff here are wonderful and my colleagues have been an absolute joy to work with on a daily basis. I could not have done it without the support of my wife and children."
The former rugby player and referee now loves travelling and taking his two dogs, Scampy and Daisy, for walks. He is described as 'one of life's enthusiasts' and intends to buy a large motor home in which he and his Polish-born wife intend to tour Europe.
He concluded: "I am really looking forward to my retirement. There are so many things I want to do. I want to draw and travel for as long as we can." The first trip will take them through Italy reaching Rome where they will link up with legal friends and family in time to watch the Italy- Ireland Six Nations rugby clash.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Barristers' fees have not changed since 2011. The Legal Aid Agency pays all bills submitted to them in a timely manner - most recent figures show over 90% of bills were processed within one month as is standard practice. We respect the quality services provided by the independent criminal Bar and have spoken at length with them about legal aid reform and listened to their views."
An HM Courts & Tribunals Service spokesperson said: "HMCTS's national contract with Eurest for the provision of on-site catering services in Crown Courts expired on 31 August 2014. HMCTS has considered bids from national, regional and local companies to provide services after that date, with a view to getting best value for money.
"Wolverhampton Crown Court is a short distance from local shops, cafes and restaurants which have served court users for many years. Taking these local facilities into consideration, HMCTS decided not to tender for a new service provider to be based in the court building. Arrangements exist at the court to provide jurors with light refreshments, and vending machines are being installed to supply hot and cold drinks, and light snacks to court users during business hours."