THE families of victims in murder cases face an agonising wait for justice as Sussex's crown courts tackle a "backlog of cases".
Three senior judges are due to retire next year and that means that families of victims could face a delay in seeing those accused of killing their loved ones brought to trial.
Her Honour Shani Barnes will be the only judge left in the Lewes court district - which include Lewes, Hove and Brighton crown courts - qualified to sit on murder trials from early next year.
Judges Anthony Scott-Gall, Michael Hayward and Michael Lawson QC are all due to retire in the next few months.
Judge Barnes spoke out about the "backlog" of murder trials as she told one family they will have to wait another eight months for a trial date.
Families of murder victims condemned any possible delays as "agony".
Judge Barnes said: "Three senior judges are retiring.
"I will be the only murder ticketed judge so we can only fix murder trials for me.
"We already have a backlog of murder cases in the spring."
Judge Barnes made the comments as she tried to set a date for a retrial of Starr Randel-Hanson - who is accused of murdering spiritualist medium Derek Marney.
Judge Barnes said Mr Marney's family were told that because of the shortage of judges next year they will have to wait until at least July to see justice.
The courts service said that measures would be implemented to prevent delays - but said it could mean cases have to be heard at courts where there are qualified judges out of the area .
The family of Joe Lewis - who was murdered last Christmas Day - had to wait ten and a half months to see his killer - Oliver Parsons - brought to justice last week and sent to prison for life.
They said: "The waiting is probably the hardest thing you have to deal with. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
"The longer you wait the more anniversaries of their death and important occasions like birthdays and Christmases you miss without justice.
"I wouldn't want to see that drawn out any longer than necessary."
Peter Croft, of St Leonards, whose daughter Melinda was murdered by Keith Williams in 1986, but had to wait until last year to see him found guilty of the crime, said:"It is ridiculous. I can't condone any family having to wait any longer than necessary.
"You never get over it, but seeing them brought to trial does bring you some closure.
"Time and time again going back to the courts is agony. The more times you have to do that the worse it is."
Several other families are still awaiting justice at the Lewes courts after murders of their loved ones, including the family of University of Brighton student Janet Müller, who was killed and left in the boot of a car after leaving Mill View hospital in March.
Christopher Jeffrey Shaw, 26, of Lakeside, Beckenham, London, is due to face a trial in February.
Only the most senior judges can receive a murder-ticket - meaning they can preside over murder trials.
However the courts promised there was no shortage of judges.
A spokesman for the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary said: "There is currently no shortage of suitable judges.
"There is a national procedure in place for authorising judges who try murder cases.
"This procedure will be followed in order to ensure that there is no shortage of judges in Sussex.
"In the meantime there is no reason why cases cannot continue to be listed before judges in the usual manner.
"If necessary high court judges can sit at Lewes as they do across the country.
"There is also no reason, if required, why cases can't be listed at other crown courts and heard by suitably qualified judges."
Judge Shani Barnes
NOT EASY TO DEAL WITH BACKLOG AS PRESSURE MOUNTS ON ALL COURTS
HAVING a loved one taken from them before their time in the most brutal way is something families can never get over.
But one consolation and a source of closure for the friends and families of murder victims is seeing their killers brought to justice.
In the words of Brighton murder victim Joe Lewis’s family, “the waiting is probably the hardest thing you have to deal with”.
The balance of justice is a tricky thing – balancing the needs of suspects to face a fair trial and victims to see those who have committed heinous crimes punished.
And that process cannot be rushed.
A typical murder case can take more than six months from a suspect being charged to facing a jury – but the backlog of cases raised by Lewes Crown Court Judge Shani Barnes means that process could be drawn out even longer.
Her Honour Judge Barnes found herself forced to apologise to the family of Derek Marney that Starr Randel-Hanson – the man accused of killing him – cannot sit before her for a retrial for another nine months.
Judge Barnes said there was “already a backlog of murder cases next spring” as he tried to set a date for Randel Hanson, 49, over the death of Mr Marney at the flat they shared in Vernon Terrace, Brighton.
The justice system – like all other public services – has been forced to make cuts.
In 2011 Lewes Magistrates’ Court closed its doors as a way to cut costs for the judiciary.
Last month Sussex magistrates hit out at plans to merge the county’s Local Justice Areas (LJAs).
The government is proposing to merge two LJAs within West Sussex but magistrates in East Sussex say the plans should go even further and merge all four Local Justice Areas – two within East Sussex and the two within West Sussex – into just one unit.
The four Local Justice Areas are Sussex (Central) covering Brighton and Lewes Magistrates Courts, Sussex (Eastern) for Eastbourne and Hastings Magistrates Courts, Sussex (Northern) covering Crawley, Haywards Heath and Horsham Magistrates Courts and Sussex (Western) for Worthing and Chichester Magistrates Courts.
Concerned magistrates wrote to MPs saying the proposals “ignore the wishes of magistrates they lead”.
In tough times with fewer courts and less staff dealing with the same number of crimes at the county’s magistrates, courts regularly find they do not get to the bottom of their daily lists.
Last year the country’s most senior judge blamed cuts in legal aid for a surge in outbreaks of courtroom violence, additional litigation and increased costs.
The judges warned tensions can run high. Very occasionally there are significant outbreaks of violence. The smaller courts (typically the county courts) are not equipped to deal with such incidents. There is “the potential for significant harm to judges, court staff and members of the public alike”, the Judicial Executive Board warned.
The warning about the backlog highlights the tough situation judges are in.
The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has promised there will be a “procedure in place” to deal with the backlog, but the added pressure on the service can only be an added burden to those already suffering.