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Raab admits court delays ‘unacceptable’ as backlog reaches record hig

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

The lord chancellor has taken the unusual step of commenting on newly-released criminal court statistics, with the latest showing the Crown court backlog reaching a record high.

Statistics published today show that there were 60,692 outstanding cases in the Crown court at the end of June, up from 59,942 between January to March. The backlog has steadily been rising since the early months of 2019, when it stood at 33,290. It rose to 41,045 between January to March 2020, before the country went into its first lockdown. Unsurprisingly, after jury trials were suspended on 23 March 2020, the number of outstanding cases began to rise sharply. Jury trials slowly began to resume two months later – however, the backlog has continued to rise.

Today’s bulletin also includes ‘experimental statistics’ that show cases are outstanding for longer.

The age of an outstanding case is calculated from the point of receipt into the Crown court and the latest outstanding date. Between April to June, median (162 days) and mean (230 days) estimates continued to rise, up 7% and 22% respectively on the previous year.

The proportion of cases outstanding for more than a year has increased from 11% in April-June 2020 to 19% this year, though the latest figure is down slightly on the previous quarter (21% for January-March).

Dominic Raab, who was appointed justice secretary as well as deputy prime minister this month, was quick to issue a statement this morning.

He said: ‘It is unacceptable that many victims are having to wait so long to seek justice. The pandemic put unprecedented constraint on our ability to hold jury trials, but we have made strong progress in the magistrates’ courts to reduce the number of outstanding cases. With new super court rooms, the extension of the Nightingale Courts into 2022 and limit-free sitting days in crown courts, we will restore the swift access to justice that victims deserve.’

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, referred to the Crown court backlog in his Labour Party conference speech yesterday. ‘Under the Tories the criminal justice system is close to collapse. There has never been a bigger backlog in the Crown courts,’ the former director of public prosecutions said.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said members were facing problems with how cases are listed, the lack of consultation with lawyers in relation to listing, and difficulties getting in contact with courts when there is a listing problem.

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘The abundant sense in listing trials so as to ensure continuity of representation is all too often disregarded to the detriment of complainants and defendants alike. Worse still are the increasing number of cases where no barrister can be found at all because the profession is already so severely overstretched and depleted in numbers.’

The Ministry of Justice provided lengthy guidance to provide wider context for today’s figures.

The department was keen to point out that while the increase in the backlog marks a record high, it is increasing at a much slower rate than has been seen in recent months and only 1% higher than the first quarter of this year. Some regions have shown falls in the outstanding Crown court caseload, with the north east, south west and Wales showing small reductions of around 2-3% on previous quarters.

The MoJ added that courts always operate with outstanding cases and a case may be outstanding for many reasons. For instance, the defence and prosecution are still preparing for a trial, or the trial may have been rescheduled to enable a defendant or witness to attend.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)