The backlog of crown court cases increased by more than 7,000 during the first five months of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures have revealed.

According to data up to August 23, there are 46,467 serious criminal cases in the justice system, with a further 517,782 cases waiting to be dealt with by magistrates.

The crown court backlog had been growing rapidly before the pandemic struck, reaching 39,000 in early March, with lawyers blaming this increase on a lack of investment in the justice system and reductions in the number of court sitting days.


The Ministry of Justice is now under increasing pressure to tackle the mounting backlog, with many defendants and victims now being forced to wait until late 2021 or even beyond for a jury trial to be held.

Jury cases had to be shutdown in late March due to coronavirus, as courts around the country scaled back their caseloads to essential work only and began grappling with social distancing rules.

Trials gradually restarted in June, but courthouses have only been able to hear handfuls of cases at once to avoid breaching public health guidelines.

This week, a judge at Woolwich crown court, Judge Keith Raynor, heavily criticised the government’s response to the courts crisis, calling it “too little, too late”.

He refused to extend custody time limits for a defendant who had already spent 11 months awaiting his trial, and then publicly claimed he had been “pressured” by senior judges to make a different decision and stripped of powers when he spoke out.

Some courts have installed plexiglass screens

Plexiglass screens are due to be rolled out to crown courts around the country shortly, in a bid to get more trials running with jurors able to sit closer together in the courtroom.

The Ministry of Justice also this week announced an £80 million investment in the system, including to hire 1,600 extra court staff, set up more so-called ‘Nightingale’ courts, and bring in portacabins for extra space. It is also piloting extending the court sitting hours.

Today’s figures show the civil courts are now dealing with more than 8,000 cases a week, down from more than 14,000 pre-Covid-19.

The number of cases received by the crown courts has almost returned to the pre-pandemic levels, but cases dealt with – disposals – is around 400 short per week of the figures from early March.

(PA)

Releasing the numbers today, the Ministry of Justice did not comment on the increasing backlog in the crown court, but highlighted a reduction in the number of cases at the magistrates, down 7,077 from a peak of 525,059 in late July. Pre-pandemic the number of outstanding magistrate cases was 407,129.

“The new video technology we rolled out earlier this year has been used in thousands of trials and we’re already seeing the number of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling as a result”, the MoJ spokesperson said.

“This is a huge step in getting the justice system back up to speed, but we accept that there is still work to boost capacity and to reduce delays.

“This includes opening more Nightingale Courts, rolling out Plexiglass in courtrooms, and testing COVID Operating Hours to help deliver speedier justice for all.”



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