Criminal courts: MoJ's 'meagre ambition' to clear backlog causes 'unacceptable delays'
The MoJ aims to reduce the backlog by fewer than 7,000 cases by 2025
The Public Accounts Committee published a damning report into the criminal courts backlog yesterday (9 March) in which the Committee asserted “unacceptable” delays for court users were “unlikely” to be addressed by the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) “meagre ambition” to reduce the Crown Court backlog to 53,000 – fewer than 7,000 cases – by March 2025.
The Committee highlighted the number of cases awaiting resolution in the Crown Court has nearly doubled since March 2019, from an “all-time low” of 33,290 to 59,928 cases in September 2021. It also flagged that since March 2020, the number of cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340 per cent. The Committee said it remained “unconvinced” of the MoJ’s intentions to reduce Crown Court waiting times, “given the slow pace of recovery”.
Commenting on the report, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce, said: “The report echoes the concerns we have long been raising about the backlog plaguing our criminal courts which is leaving victims and defendants waiting too long to get the justice they deserve.
“Lengthy delays in even the most serious trials coming to court mean a traumatised victim can be left waiting years to see their assailant locked up, while an innocent defendant can find their life in limbo while they wait to clear their name”.
The report said: “Victims of crime are waiting even longer to access justice. As waiting times increase, so does the probability that a case collapses as victims withdraw from the process.
“Rape and serious sexual offences survivors are at the sharp edge of this trend, as these cases are more likely to progress to jury trials, which require more space and are more prone to delays.
“The committee is concerned that the [MoJ's] ambition to support victims is being frustrated by these delays and that victims’ confidence in the criminal justice system is being eroded”.
The Law Society warned widespread investment is needed to ensure there is capacity in the criminal justice system to tackle the courts backlog and ensure access to justice for victims and defendants.
“Our duty solicitor heatmaps and workload survey illustrate the retention and recruitment crisis in the criminal defence profession,” said Boyce. “Years of underinvestment and cuts mean there is a real risk that the capacity is simply not there in terms of solicitors and barristers, as well as judges, to do the large volume of work necessary to clear the backlog in a meaningful fashion”.
She added: “Investment is needed now across the entire criminal justice system, starting with the immediate implementation of the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended in Sir Christopher Bellamy’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.
“If this does not happen, we fear that our members will leave the market at ever faster rates, which will seriously compromise the government’s ability to clear the huge backlog in the criminal courts and reduce the unacceptable delays being faced by victims, witnesses and defendants”.
Boyce called on the profession to continue to work to tackle any barriers which deny diverse candidates the opportunity to get into the profession, to allow recruitment from a diverse talent pool of fee-paid and salaried judges in courts and tribunals and help build the capacity needed to clear the backlog.
Professor Chris Bones, chair of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), said CILEX had this week put forward a number of actions "which could make an immediate difference", that he hoped to see included in the government’s programme of work. "These include proposals to increase the pipeline of CILEX judges to all judicial appointments, not just the lower tribunals,” said Bones.
Boyce concluded: “As the report rightly points out, 20,000 new police officers are only going to add to the criminal court workload. You can pour all the money you like into policing and prosecution but without a healthy criminal defence profession, British justice will cease to exist and it’s the public who will suffer”.