The government will struggle to cut the court backlog unless it increases both prosecution and defence resources, chief inspectors for the criminal justice system have warned. They also note that the state of the courts was already ‘parlous’ before the pandemic hit and has deteriorated since.
In a ‘state of the nation’ report last year, the four criminal justice inspectorates said urgent and significant action was needed to eliminate a ‘chronic’ court backlog. Publishing a progress report today, they said recovery remained ‘elusive’.
By the end of December 2021 a quarter of cases had been waiting for a year or more to reach court. The number of cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340% since March 2020. Trial effectiveness rates ‘are not as good as before the pandemic, meaning that many cases are adjourned – thereby increasing the overall backlogs’.
The inspectors welcomed work to support recovery, including removing the financial cap on judicial sitting days, extending Nightingale courtrooms and opening two ‘super’ courtrooms. However, the impact so far was ‘minimal’. The ministry’s ambition to reduce the Crown court backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 ‘will do very little to improve matters’.
The inspectors said: ‘More needs to be done across the criminal justice system to enable all parties to work collectively to address the issues. For example, increasing the capacity of the courts is one factor in addressing the backlogs but without an increase in resources for prosecution and defence, they will be required to cover increased volumes of cases with the same resources.’
A ‘shrinking’ criminal bar could have an impact on the effectiveness on the criminal justice system while pressures on defence practitioners ‘have not eased substantially’.
The Law Society said it was compelling to see the four chief inspectors echo its concerns for urgent investment in defence practice to help clear the court backlog.
Unless the government increases criminal legal aid fees by the 15% recommended by the Bellamy review, Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said there will be no criminal defence profession to meet the additional workload resulting from 20,000 extra new police officers.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We are pleased the chief inspectors recognised our decisive action saved lives and kept the justice system moving during the pandemic. Thanks to the almost half a billion we have invested and the extra measures we have taken to bring down the Crown court backlog – including extra courtroom capacity and increasing sentencing powers for magistrates – the number of outstanding cases is falling and we have now eased the restrictions across our prisons which kept staff, prisoners and the wider community safe.’
The @MoJGovUK will pump out its usual spin in response to this report.
“Half a billion of funding! More police! Backlog is falling!”
Rubbish. The funding does not begin to replace what the government has stripped out. Things are getting worse. The system is in meltdown.
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) May 17, 2022
Pressure to list cases quickly has a knock on effect for agencies with limited resources.
As the defence community haemorrhages lawyers, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those that remain working in the profession, to keep their head above the water. https://t.co/tp8yNcPTc7
— LCCSA (@lccsa) May 17, 2022
“excoriating Inspectorate cross-departmental justice report which rightly concludes that there still seems to be no coherent plan whatsoever from Government to righting the sinking ship that it holed years ago before pandemic” @TheCriminalBar@JoSidhuQChttps://t.co/oEzBSZZZ8i
— The CBA (@TheCriminalBar) May 17, 2022
Criminal justice system report makes sombre Reading and confirms the warnings from criminal barristers for years
“The system is getting by because of an artificially supressed level of activity and reduced performance management and quality expectations “https://t.co/V0QUgd9V9K
— Kirsty Brimelow QC (@Kirsty_Brimelow) May 17, 2022