The backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by criminal courts will “remain a problem for many years”, severely affecting victims, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has warned.
The number of cases waiting to be heard in crown courts in England and Wales could be between 17% and 27% higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024, according to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) estimates highlighted by the National Audit Office (NAO).
By the end of June, official figures indicated there were record highs of nearly 61,000 outstanding crown court cases and more than 364,000 in magistrates’ courts.
Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: “Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years. The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the Ministry of Justice works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”
The findings come as the Government announced that another Nightingale court will open at a hotel in Warwick as part of efforts to reduce the backlog – taking the total in England and Wales to 23.
The report warned that the backlog – which was already rising in the year leading up to the pandemic – means victims, witnesses and defendants are waiting longer for their cases to be heard and delays could increase the risk of people withdrawing from the process and cases collapsing.
It cited figures which suggested the number of crown court cases older than a year had increased from 2,830 to 11,379 (302%), and from 246 to 1,316 (435%) for rape and sexual assault cases, between March 2020 and June 2021.
Waiting times rose most in London, with the average age of a case increasing by 63% from 164 days to 266 days, the report said.
The NAO found Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) responded quickly in the early stages of the pandemic, prioritising people’s safety and access to justice for urgent cases.
Its court recovery programme increased crown court capacity by 30% between September 2020 and July 2021 by opening temporary Nightingale courts and modifying existing buildings.
But the long-term recovery plan “hinges on securing funding and resources” and “significant risks remain”, including “funding uncertainty” as the MoJ estimates it needs around an additional £500 million for criminal courts and £1.7 billion for legal aid, prisons and probation services to support recovery.
The government department “also recognises that recruiting enough judges to hear cases will be a challenge”, the NAO said.
The report added that the MoJ and HMCTS also have a “poor understanding of the impact the pandemic and recovery programme have had on court service users from ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups”.
The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme a “serious injection of cash is imperative” to address the problem.
More sitting days with more part-time judges are required, she argued, as is an increase in legal aid payments to tempt back criminal lawyers.
Derek Sweeting QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the findings showed the criminal justice system “is at breaking point”, adding: “Ahead of next week’s spending review, the Bar Council is calling for spending to be increased by an extra 22p per person to tackle the enormous backlog and allow the Government to meet its bold ambitions around law and order whilst supporting victims of crime and reducing delays.”
An MoJ spokesman said: “This report recognises the speed at which we responded to Covid-19. This meant that – in a matter of months – our buildings were made safe, remote technology was rolled out across all courts, and Nightingale courtrooms opened up and down the country to increase the space available for trials.
“We are already seeing the results, with outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling, and in the crown court the backlog stabilising.”