Concerns over Government plan to tackle court backlog

MPs warned there were ‘significant’ challenges to clearing the number of criminal cases waiting to be heard.

09 March 2022

Government plans to tackle court case backlogs are “unlikely” to address the “unacceptable delays to justice for victims”, according to MPs.

The Public Accounts Committee described the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) ambition to tackle the number of cases waiting to be dealt with by crown courts in England and Wales as “meagre”.

In a report, it warned there were “significant, systemic challenges” to clearing the backlog, including having enough judges, legal professionals and staff to run criminal courts, adding: “We also have significant concerns about the ability of the rest of the criminal justice system to respond to more cases flowing through the courts, particularly in the prison service.”

Committee chairman Meg Hillier said: “The crown court backlog has doubled since March 2019, to 60,000 of the most serious criminal cases waiting to be heard.

“We acknowledge the difficulties created by the pandemic but the figures show that these problems were evident before Covid hit.

“The Ministry of Justice says it will take two years to cut this backlog by less than a sixth.

“It’s just not good enough. The number of people waiting more than a year to have a serious criminal case heard has more than trebled since March 2020 from already unacceptably high levels.

“Government can’t keep shrugging off the question of what adding 20,000 new police officers to the mix will do.

“The Ministry of Justice must look at the challenges it’s facing in the round and come up with a plan that deals with them, not worsens them.”

According to the findings, “unacceptable delays to justice for victims, witnesses, and defendants is unlikely to be addressed by the department’s meagre ambition to reduce the crown court backlog by less than 8,000 cases by March 2025.”

The report added that such delays “compound and extend” the suffering of victims of rape and serious sexual offences and “lead to too many cases collapsing”.

The MPs also concluded they were “not convinced that the department can recruit enough judges to deliver on its ambition to reduce the crown court backlog”.

Among a series of recommendations, the committee said the MoJ should “fully explore with the judiciary what reasonable expectations can be set around how long it should take for a case to be completed in the crown court” and write to the committee with these findings within six months as well as set out a plan to “assess the impact of its measures to support victims of rape and serious sexual offences”.

A MoJ spokesman said: “The crown court backlog has fallen significantly in recent months and we are on track to get through a fifth more cases next year than in to the year running up to the pandemic.

“This is thanks to our half-a-billion-pounds plan to speed up justice – including unlimited court sitting days, Nightingale Court extensions and greater powers for magistrates – while our £4 billion prison-building programme will deliver 20,000 more places by the mid-2020s.”

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