England: Backlog of criminal cases to last many years
The backlog of cases in the criminal courts in England and Wales is likely to be a pervasive issue for several years, severely affecting all court users, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The pandemic significantly affected the work of the criminal justice system, requiring extensive changes in criminal courts to keep judges, court staff, and service users safe. By the end of June 2021, the backlog of cases waiting to be heard or completed was nearly 61,000 cases in the Crown Court and more than 364,000 cases in the magistrates’ courts.
The Crown Court is where more serious trials take place and where the backlog is acute.
The backlog in the Crown Court had already increased by 23 per cent in the year leading up to the pandemic, partly because the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) allocated an insufficient number of court sitting days. The backlog increased significantly during the pandemic, from 41,045 on 31 March 2020 to 60,692 on 30 June 2021, albeit at a much slower rate since March 2021.
The MoJ expects significant backlogs to continue in the Crown Court for several years, and the number of cases waiting could be between 17 per cent and 27 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024.
The backlog in criminal cases means victims, witnesses and defendants are waiting longer for their cases to be heard. Between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, the number of cases older than a year in the Crown Court increased from 2,830 to 11,379 (302 per cent) and from 246 to 1,316 (435 per cent) for rape and sexual assault cases. Waiting times increased most in London, with the average age of a case increasing by 63 per cent from 164 days on 31 March 2020 to 266 days on 30 June 2021. Delays could increase the risk of individuals withdrawing from the process and cases collapsing.
Today’s report finds that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) responded quickly in the early stages of the pandemic, prioritising peoples’ safety and access to justice for urgent cases. It launched a courts recovery programme which increased Crown Court capacity by 30 per cent between September 2020 and July 2021 through opening temporary courtrooms and modifying others.
The MoJ and HMCTS have a poor understanding of the impact the pandemic and recovery programme have had on court users from ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups.
The NAO found there has been slow progress in evaluating how vulnerable users have been affected by, for example, remote access to justice. There is also no evidence that the MoJ has any data on users’ ethnicity to carry out meaningful analysis on whether ethnic minority groups have been disadvantaged.
The NAO recommends that the MoJ should agree with other criminal justice agencies a set of shared, published objectives for recovery in criminal courts that consider the implications for the rest of the criminal justice system. It should also devise and implement a plan to tackle the systemic barriers to collecting, using and sharing data effectively across the criminal justice system.
Gareth Davies, the 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 impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the MoJ works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”