Backlog of criminal cases approaching half a million
Recent figures show that the total backlog in the criminal courts is over 457,000 cases. Whilst the vast majority of these are less serious crimes that are dealt with in the Magistrates Courts, 54,000 cases remain unheard in the Crown Courts. Of those Crown Court cases around 65%, or 27,700 cases, are understood to be trials. These figures represent increases of more than 40% than the previous year.
The prison population has also been affected with more than 15% (over 11,000) of the prison population (totalling 78,700 as at December 2020) on remand awaiting Crown Court trial.
A combination of trials ceasing completely from 23 March 2020 and not commencing (and then only in a limited number of court centres) until 18 May 2020 and logistical problems encountered in making courtrooms Covid-secure has resulted in the backlog. The impact of personnel and jurors becoming ill has resulted in trials taking significantly longer than normal. As a result of the measures put in place some trials have to take up two courtrooms. Currently there are 410 courtrooms able to hear cases within 79 Crown Courts; of those only 290 courtrooms are deemed safe to hold jury trials – a reduction of 30%.
Concerns have been raised from four criminal justice watchdogs (probation, policing, prisons and prosecutors inspectorates).
Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation, said: "Crown courts deal with the most serious cases, so this backlog concerns us all. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant severe delays and numerous cancellations throughout 2020, and this has had a negative impact on everyone involved.
"Delays mean victims must wait longer for cases to be heard. Some will withdraw support for prosecutions because they have lost faith in the process.
"Witnesses will find it difficult to recall events that took place many months ago, and prosecutors waste significant periods of time preparing for cases that do not go ahead."
The Ministry of Justice claims that the backlog is beginning to reduce after creating more than 30 emergency "Nightingale" courtrooms and installing plexiglass screens in a further 400. Prosecutors were issued with further Guidance to their Code for Crown Prosecutors in April 2020 to encourage them to consider whether a prosecution is in the public interest in the face of the pandemic. No figures are available presently as to reduction in criminal cases being charged but practitioners in this area have noticed a decline in prosecutions.
Concerns from both barristers and solicitors have been expressed as to whether the measures taken are sufficient enough. Mark Troman, president of the LCCSA (London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association), said: “I have heard that some crown courts are not listing cases beyond a certain point – around late 2022 – in the hope of finding earlier slots. They have been closing crown court buildings for years.
“There’s no evidence to suggest they will get through more cases by using extended operating hours. Most cases take twice as long when you put them through a Covid court.”
On 19 January the Justice Committee will meet consisting of Inspectorates from the CPS, Prisons, Probation and Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services to discuss the impact on the prison, probation and court systems.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.