Bid to cut crown court backlog no longer achievable, spending watchdog warns

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A government target of cutting the backlog of crown court cases, set three years ago, is no longer achievable, the UK’s spending watchdog has said, after the number of cases waiting to be heard hit record levels.

Severe jail overcrowding is one of the biggest obstacles to reducing the delays, but leaking buildings and heating failures are also to blame.

In October 2021, the department launched a plan to reduce the backlog, which now stands at 67,573, to 53,000 by March next year. That would mean a reduction of more than a fifth.

But the National Audit Office (NAO) says that instead of falling, caseloads are 78 per cent higher than at the end of 2019, and 11 per cent up on June 2021, when the spending watchdog last investigated, and the target cannot now be reached.

At least a quarter of cases (27 per cent) have waited for a year or more to be heard, prolonging distress to victims, witnesses and defendants, according to NAO figures.

In a report that highlights how logjams in the system affect justice, the watchdog says delays are also risking cases collapsing because victims and witnesses may withdraw, and their memories of evidence decline over time.

Hold-ups may also harm victims’ mental wellbeing, and that of defendants awaiting trial, the report warns.

On average it takes 683 days – nearly two years - from offence to a case being completed at crown court.

The Independent has previously revealed how criminals are relying on crippling trial delays to evade justice by pleading not guilty.

The report says courtrooms are often out of action because of their physical condition such as leaks or heating failures.

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In 2022, the MoJ estimated that half of crown courts were at risk of sudden closure for such reasons, and the report authors warn that buildings not being fit for purpose due to long-term underinvestment may in future be a barrier to reducing backlogs.

The report, ‘Reducing the backlog in the Crown Court’ reveals that almost a fifth (18 per cent) of cases awaiting trial are sexual offences.

In 2021, during the Covid pandemic, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was handed £477m of funding.

The ministry estimates the backlog will be around 64,000 by March, but has not set a new ambition to reduce it.

Ministers have increased courts, sitting days and judges’ capacity, but cannot say how much was spent on these, the auditors found.

The government says increases in numbers of inmates on remand awaiting trial is the leading cause of pressure on prisons and it is increasing prison places.

Last year, the remand population surpassed 16,000 – the highest in 50 years, the NAO found.

The backlog is also blamed on a shortage of legal professionals; ineffective trials; a rise in complex cases such as adult rape; cases delayed by Covid and defence barristers’ industrial action.

Tana Adkin KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, blamed a Ministry of Justice “failure” to ensure every case had available counsel, a judge, a jury and a working courtroom.

“The NAO report confirms that which criminal practitioners have known for years – that the criminal justice system remains in crisis without a plan for sustained investment, despite the repeated warnings of prosecutors and defence advocates,” she said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The crown court sat for over 107,000 days last year, more days than at any point in the last seven years.

“We are also investing more in the system, rolling out remote hearings, extending the use of Nightingale courts and recruiting hundreds of judges to get victims the justice they deserve and put more offenders behind bars.

“The government is pushing ahead with the largest prison expansion programme in 100 years – with 10,000 of the 20,000 additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025.”