Back in March, our very own Mike Hayward and Nathan Taylor-Allkins featured on the ITV Anglia News, where they spoke about the backlog of criminal cases and how court delays are impacting business and individual clients, victims and witnesses.
In this blog, we offer more information about the various factors that have led to this situation, what is being done about it and how it is continuing to impact those affected.
Why is there such a large court backlog?
One of the main reasons cited for the severity of the backlog is the COVID-19 pandemic. Covid was a major contributor to an already backed up system.
When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) closed many court buildings and suspended all jury hearings. When courts reopened, they did so with limitations on their capacity due to social distancing measures, reducing the number of hearings that could be held and continuing to exacerbate the existing backlog.
According to a report published by the Criminal Justice Inspectorates, the backlog affecting the Crown Court (which hears the most serious cases) jumped by 48% between March 2020 and July 2021. Even more worryingly, the number of cases waiting to be heard for a year or longer has increased by a staggering 340% since March 2020, while the number of rape and serious sexual offences victims waiting longer than a year for justice has soared by 400%. A situation, as summarised in a recent report from the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, “that compound[s] and extend[s] their suffering and lead[s] to too many cases collapsing”.
A vulnerable system
While the pandemic certainly exacerbated court delays, it was not the root cause; statistics suggest that the Crown Court backlog had already increased by 23% in the year prior to the pandemic. A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) published in October 2021 found that government cuts to the justice system were beginning to bite in the years leading up to the pandemic, leaving the courts in a vulnerable position prior to the onset of the crisis.
Meg Hillier, who chairs the Committee of Public Accounts, commented in The Independent that the courts were “already struggling” prior to March 2020.
How is the situation impacting those waiting for justice?
There are concerns that these extreme delays in accessing justice could lead more and more victims to pull out of their trials, leaving them with no resolution, no closure and no justice. In March 2022, Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, stated: “Court delays exert tremendous tolls on victims, with their lives effectively put on hold as they await their time in court. These delays will severely test victims’ resolve and we cannot be surprised if increasing numbers decide they are unable to stay the course.” For example, a recent BBC article reported one case of a woman who was raped in 2017, but who was forced to wait until late summer 2021 to see her attacker convicted and imprisoned.
The impact on all those accused of a criminal or regulatory allegation should not be forgotten. Awaiting a charge decision is bad enough , but to have such a long wait before the conclusion of their case causes immeasurable anxiety. Never forget that you are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and many are acquitted.
What is the government doing to address court delays?
Since the onset of the pandemic, the government has announced a range of measures to help tackle the ongoing problems with the justice system, including:
- Investment to support recovery from the backlog and for victims and support services.
- Removing the cap on how many days the Crown Court can sit per year (for the second consecutive year).
- Magistrates can now issue sentences of up to 12 months for a single offence (previously only the Crown Court was able to issue sentences in excess of six months). According to the government, this will free up to 1,700 extra days of Crown Court time annually.
- The continued use of the ‘Nightingale Court’ system, set up during the pandemic to support access to justice, until March 2023.
- A so-called ‘super courtroom’ was opened in Manchester Crown Court in 2021, with a second at Loughborough to follow, increasing capacity for large trials.
- Increasing the use of digital hearings via video conferencing software.
However, there have been criticisms of the government’s actions, with some suggesting that they don’t go far enough to tackle the severity of the issue. For example, Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said of new magistrates’ powers: “Keeping back more cases in the magistrates may in any event only trigger more appeals to the crown court, adding to the growing lists of outstanding cases and diverting criminal advocates for tackling the pre-existing pile-up of trials.”
He added: “The Government may have (also) promised unlimited court sitting days, but there simply aren’t enough judges to sit because, as the MoJ knows full well, it can’t recruit sufficient judges who are in very large part drawn from the same diminishing pool of criminal barristers who also prosecute and defend and who are leaving in droves.”
Here to help
It is clear that the current court backlog is a complex, multi-faceted issue that will likely take many years to resolve completely. In the meantime, our lawyers are committed to supporting clients throughout their case and rendering the process as smooth as possible.
Look out for Mike Hayward, who heads up the team on ITV Anglia news who recently took part in a follow up interview where he discussed how the increased workload has impacted on those working in the criminal justice system as well as the pressures put upon solicitors and barristers.