UK criminal court case backlog set to last ‘several years’

The backlog of criminal cases waiting to be heard in England and Wales is set to last beyond 2024, leaving witnesses, victims and defendants waiting years for justice, according to a report by the parliamentary spending watchdog.

Delays are “likely to be a pervasive issue for several years” and the number of cases waiting to be heard could still be between 17 per cent and 27 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels in November 2024, the National Audit Office study published on Friday said.

The crown court backlog in England and Wales has risen by 19,000 since coronavirus hit in March last year and reached 60,692 cases at the end of June 2021, according to official statistics, prompting more calls for government action.

The NAO noted, according to a Ministry of Justice estimate in April 2021, that an additional £500m in funding would be needed between 2021 and 2024 to reduce the backlog to below 50,000. This would be on top of a further £1.7bn for legal aid, prisons and probation services.

The report also noted that the MoJ’s own forecasts produced in July 2021 suggested the crown court backlog could be between 48,000 and 52,000 by November 2024.

The NAO report is likely to strengthen the hand of Dominic Raab, the new justice secretary, as he battles with the Treasury for extra money to fix the criminal justice system ahead of next week’s departmental spending review.

The report was been greeted with concern by the legal profession. Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, which represents barristers, said: “The alarming figures set out in the NAO report show that the criminal justice system is at breaking point.” I Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said it highlighted “the dire need for investment resulting from years of cuts”. 

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years. ”

The NAO study highlighted rape and sexual offence cases as being particularly badly affected by delays. Between March 2020 and June 2021, the number of sexual offence prosecutions in the court backlog increased by 71 per cent — from 3,606 to 6,173 cases, according to the watchdog.

There was a 435 per cent increase in the number of sexual offence cases waiting in the crown court backlog for longer than a year — from 246 in March 2020 to 1,316 in June 2021.

The NAO concluded that the MoJ had reacted quickly to the pandemic and spent £63m on criminal court recovery work in 2020-2021 as well as introducing new IT systems, setting up 72 temporary “Nightingale” courts, modifying existing courtrooms and hiring extra staff.

It also noted the MoJ’s evidence that without the Nightingale courts, the crown court backlog would have been 4,470 higher by April 2021 but the NAO said “significant risks remain” to the MoJ’s recovery plan.

The MoJ said: “This report recognises the speed at which we responded to Covid-19. This meant that — in a matter of months — our buildings were made safe, remote technology was rolled out across all courts, and Nightingale courtrooms opened up and down the country to increase the space available for trials.

“We are already seeing the results, with outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling, and in the crown court, the backlog stabilising.”


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