Complex and lengthy criminal trials

Over the course of 2015 a JUSTICE working party of members and invited experts chaired by Sir David Calvert-Smith was tasked with reviewing the current processes that lead to complex and lengthy criminal trials. This was in order to present a series of recommendations designed to deliver increased efficiency and effectiveness within the criminal justice processes, while maintaining the absolute right to a fair trial. The final report was published in March 2016 at an event kindly hosted by Simmons and Simmons LLP.

The challenge 


Complex and lengthy trials (CLTs) constitute a specific and longstanding concern of the criminal justice system. They require vast resources and have only got longer and more unmanageable as advances in technology have given rise to more and more electronic material, which must be reviewed, disclosed and then presented effectively at trial. Despite various reviews and protocols, which identify and offer solutions to the problems associated with CLTs, those problems persist, and the result is undue length, complexity and delay at all stages. Information provided by the Legal Aid Agency demonstrates that there has been an average of 26 CLT cases per year over the last nine years. Defence costs alone averaged £2m and length in 2014 averaged 1,400 days from the point of representation order (excluding the investigation stage).

The Working Party 


The Working Party considered the three stages of a case – investigation, pre-trial and trial – and identified at each stage where we think there is a need for reform. Building upon existing guidance and the recent Leveson Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings, the solutions lie, we consider, within three broad themes across each stage of a trial:

  • First, early engagement of relevant expertise at the investigation stage to ensure that the seizure and search of material is focused and proportionate to the alleged criminal activity and of trial counsel at the pre-trial stage, to ensure that disclosure takes place as early as possible, and that the issues in the trial are identified.
  • Second, case management, by senior and independent law enforcement and prosecution agencies at the investigation stage, to ensure that the investigation is focused and progresses as quickly as possible, and by the same trial judge from the start of the pre-trial stage through to the trial, who can assist the parties to narrow the issues and present a clear case for the jury to consider.
  • Third, adoption of agile and intuitive technology, built by the criminal justice system to meet its investigation and preparation needs, without compatibility boundaries across police forces, prosecution units or defence firms, which enables all trials to be presented with visual aids rather than reams of paper.

The members of the Working Party were: 

  • Sir David Calvert-Smith (Chair)
  • Douglas Day QC
  • Anand Doobay
  • Anthony Edwards
  • Stephen Gentle
  • Benjamin Myers QC
  • HHJ Rebecca Poulet QC
  • Paul Richardson
  • Ros Wright QC
  • Professor Michael Zander QC
  • Andrea Coomber
  • Jodie Blackstock (Rapporteur)

Their work was generously supported by Simmons and Simmons LLP.

The report


In the Working Party’s view, the singular cause of difficulties in modern CLTs (which we have defined as cases of 60 days trial length or more) is the need to deal with electronic material: reviewing vast amounts of seized digital material in multiple formats for relevance; identifying the evidence to form the prosecution case; considering whether material is disclosable; and presenting the material at trial. These are the procedures which result in undue length and complexity, and in unacceptable delay. They can lead average cases to become lengthy and complex, and make already complex cases unmanageable.

Building upon existing guidance and the recent Leveson Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings, the solutions lie, we consider, within three broad themes across each stage of a trial:

• First, early engagement of relevant expertise at the investigation stage to ensure that the seizure and search of material is focused and proportionate to the alleged criminal activity and of trial counsel at the pre-trial stage, to ensure that disclosure takes place as early as possible, and that the issues in the trial are identified.
• Second, case management, by senior and independent law enforcement and prosecution agencies at the investigation stage, to ensure that the investigation is focused and progresses
as quickly as possible, and by the same trial judge from the start of the pre-trial stage through to the trial, who can assist the parties to narrow the issues and present a clear case for the jury to consider.
• Third, adoption of agile and intuitive technology, built by the criminal justice system to meet its investigation and preparation needs, without compatibility boundaries across police forces, prosecution units or defence firms, which enables all trials to be presented with visual aids rather than reams of paper.

We make practical recommendations throughout the report to aid these three themes – for example, pre-interview electronic disclosure and interview planning to ensure that interviews produce evidence that can be used at trial while giving suspects a real opportunity to put forward a response; and the use of alternative venues for trials where there is no security risk, to reduce the long waiting time for a courtroom. Some of these ideas are ground breaking, as the SPJ identified, in relation to one digital evidence management system, and judges controlling the length of an investigation upon application, which he said “will need to be carefully considered.”

A final, but significant, feature of CLTS has received consideration by the Working Party. It has often been argued that jury trial is a hindrance to the process of CLTs. JUSTICE has long supported the constitutional role of the jury in legitimising the trial process for serious crime. Our review has borne that in mind, but carefully considered the arguments for and against retaining jury trial in CLTs. We conclude, with one dissentient, that there is no reason to assume jurors, given appropriate support, are incapable of trying CLTs. Nor do we accept that alternatives to jury trial are appropriate in these cases.

Sir David Calvert-Smith, chair of the Working Party observes: These cases are not only a drain on police, legal and judicial resources, but cause significant anxiety and uncertainty for victims and suspects of crime who must wait years for an outcome to their case. Real effort is needed to bring CLTs under control and the JUSTICE Working Party offers a substantial contribution to this process.”


Read the full report here

Read a summary and highlights from the report in our press release