‘Greatest threat’ to open justice is courts backlog, MPs told

·3-min read

The backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by courts is the “greatest threat to open justice”, MPs have heard.

Reporters described the delay in cases coming to trial – which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – as representing the “greatest challenge” to open and transparent courts and the principle of the public’s right to see the justice system at work.

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.

Last month, Whitehall’s spending watchdog warned that the criminal courts backlog would “remain a problem for many years”.

The National Audit Office cited Ministry of Justice (MoJ) estimates that the number of outstanding cases for crown courts in England and Wales could be between 17% and 27% higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024.

Journalists and academics were asked by the Commons Justice Committee on Tuesday whether remote hearings – the use of which increased during lockdowns to allow cases to proceed – and allowing guilty pleas to be entered online should continue.

The PA news agency’s Old Bailey Correspondent, Emily Pennink, said: “I think continuing with remote hearings and online pleas, it has to be a positive thing if it’s going to help get through the backlog. From my perspective, the greatest challenge, the greatest threat to open justice that we have right now is the delay in cases coming to trial.

“It’s probably not something that gets talked about enough in the context of open justice. But a lot of these cases are circling in the ether waiting for a slot. We do need to bring them forward so that they can actually be reported.

“I think anything that’s going to speed up the system and help us get through the backlog is a good thing.”

But she warned there needed to be a “really robust system in place” to ensure the public and journalists had access equally to proceedings that are not carried out in the “traditional way” and material needed to be made available so defendants did not “fall under the radar”.

Judith Townend, a senior lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex, said the “inevitable” move to online systems provided an opportunity for “better transparency”, but it was “really critical to have scrutiny” to look at how this would operate in practice.

Meanwhile, Maeve McClenaghan, who works at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, told MPs it had sometimes been “tricky” to get access to courts during the pandemic because of difficulties with published court listings, which she described as “very scant on information”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £2.2 billion in funding in the autumn Budget for courts, prisons and probation services, including almost £500 million over the next three years to reduce the backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by the courts. But lawyers warned there could still be a shortfall in funding to tackle the crisis in the justice system.

Reporters have also noticed a “creeping tendency for more and more anonymity orders to be issued”, Ms Pennink told MPs, adding that more people “don’t want to be associated with a criminal trial and they’re worried about what people might say about them on social media.”

Describing the “change in the media landscape” – with court reports being published online and live updates on cases being posted on social media – she said this could make reporters more vulnerable to abuse.

Ms Pennink told the committee about a tweet she received just before covering the sentencing of Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens – for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard – which suggested that, as a reporter, she too should be abducted and killed.

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