National Audit Office: Ministry of Justice ambition over Crown court backlog ‘no longer achievable’

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The Ministry of Justice has been told to ‘get a grip’ on the courts crisis after the National Audit Office today branded as unachievable the government’s stated ambition of bringing the Crown court backlog down to 53,000 by next March.

Crown Court sign

The public spending watchdog decided to investigate after the backlog reached a record high of 67,573 in December.

‘While the MoJ confirmed publicly in April 2024 that it remained committed to the ambition, its most recent projection in September 2023 suggested that there could be 64,000 cases in March 2025, 11,000 higher than its projection in October 2021 when the ambition was set,’ the NAO said.

Today’s report is littered with alarming statistics. For example, the average time taken from offence to case completion increased from 486 days in 2019 to 683 days last year. Since the NAO’s 2021 report on reducing the backlog, the number of cases waiting since initial listing for at least a year has risen from 11,350 to 18,045 – representing over a quarter of the outstanding caseload.

The number of defendants remanded in prison last December was 65% higher than it was in December 2019. The number of ‘ineffective’ trials has risen from 16% in 2019 to 27% in 2023.

The report notes that duty solicitor numbers have steadily declined since 2017-18 and points out that, even though a government-commissioned review recommended solicitors’ fees be increased by 15%, the ministry raised them by 11%.

The Criminal Justice Board did not meet between July 2021 and July 2023, ‘reducing oversight of recovery action’.

The report concludes: ‘The rise in the Crown court backlog to its highest-ever level can only have exacerbated the negative effects that waiting longer can have on victims, witnesses, and defendants. Lengthening cases can also add to the cost of administering justice. More accurate projections by the MoJ of the flow of cases to the Crown court, including assessing the impact of changes elsewhere in the criminal justice system, would better support it to manage the Crown court backlog. The MoJ must work closely with the other parts of the system to gather intelligence, understand how changes in policy and activity in one part of the system will affect other parts, and take coordinated and timely action in response.’

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the public accounts committee, said the ministry ‘must get a grip on these impacts – understand them better and take coordinated, timely action so justice is delivered quicker, and the case backlog is reduced’.

The Law Society said today’s report paints a compelling picture of what has caused the backlog. Society president Nick Emmerson said: ‘The poor handling of Operation Early Dawn highlights the need for better engagement with legal professionals when such emergency measures are introduced. Solutions to the backlog will only be found if there is cooperation and communication with all those who work in the criminal justice system.’

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