‘People should not wait two years to be tried’: inside the crown court crisis

<span>Snaresbrook crown court in east London is pristine on the outside, but crumbling on the inside.</span><span>Photograph: Ian Macpherson London/Alamy</span>
Snaresbrook crown court in east London is pristine on the outside, but crumbling on the inside.Photograph: Ian Macpherson London/Alamy

In one of Britain’s busiest courts, a judge is taking the rare step of apologising to a defendant. “I’m so sorry, people should not be waiting over two years to be tried,” he says, addressing the man directly from the bench. “You have my personal apology, please stay in contact with your lawyers.”

The court has just been told that October 2026 is the earliest possible date the case can be heard. “It’s awful,” the judge remarks after confirming the situation with officials. “Who says our system isn’t broken?”

It’s the end of a long day at Snaresbrook crown court in east London, where this has been far from the only trial set for 2026.

Its 20 courtrooms were due to hear more than 100 cases today, from knife violence to rape, drug dealing and fraud, but were frequently derailed by missing defendants, dodgy video links and botched communications with prisons and police.

As wigged barristers and a judge convene for one ­hearing, the defendant is conspicuously absent.

He was unexpectedly arrested and held overnight, but could not be located in time to be brought to court, a defence lawyer apologetically explains. When another hearing begins, the man due to stand trial has not appeared on the video link from HMP Pentonville and prison guards are not answering the phone.

When the defendant pops up on screen 10 minutes later, the ­hearing is put off again because he has not been able to speak to his legal team.

“I arranged a conference, I’ve been sat here for the last 20 minutes,” he tells the judge, who closes the courtroom so they can speak in private.

Video screens needed to display evidence in one courtroom have stopped working and proceedings have to be moved to a different building, while another trial has to be paused when a defendant begins vomiting violently in the dock.

At those hearings that do manage to convene, trial dates at Snaresbrook are set far in the future.

A man charged with indecent exposure is bailed until a jury can consider his case – in July 2026. The judge says it’s the “earliest the court can offer”.

Another defendant, allegedly found on a London street with a machete, cannabis and thousands of pounds in criminal cash, is freed with a trial scheduled for September 2026.

Again, the judge says it is the earliest date possible, and sets new bail conditions attempting to make him inform lawyers if he moves house or changes his phone number.

Leading legal professionals and victims’ campaigners say the extraordinary scenes are a symptom of a spiralling crisis in Britain’s “crumbling” criminal justice system. Snaresbrook itself acts as an apt metaphor. Housed in an imposing Grade II-listed Victorian building, it appears pristine from a distance in its beautiful, landscaped gardens.

But it doesn’t take long to see the cracks. Someone knocks into a fire extinguisher between courtrooms and it immediately crashes to the ground as its bracket gives way.

A member of staff tries to push it back into place but quickly gives up, leaving chunks of plaster on the floor and two holes in the wall.

Critics have described recent ­government justice policies as ­“sticking plasters”. Here, there is duct tape holding down the carpets.

The Observer’s visit came as the Ministry of Justice published figures showing backlogs at a record high, with 68,125 crown court cases waiting to be heard in England and Wales.

Every month, almost 700 trials are unable to go ahead on their scheduled day and fall back into the queue because of myriad logistical problems, including defendants not being transported from prison, a shortage of barristers and overbooked courts running out of time to hear cases.

Almost 8,000 such “ineffective” trials were recorded last year – making up over a quarter of the total – and the figure is expected to rise further.

Waiting times are worsening the prison overcrowding ­crisis as more and more people are held on remand. Cases are more likely ­to ­collapse as ­victims and witnesses pull out.

Sadly, it is victims and families that suffer in this cruel and traumatising system

Claire Waxman, London Victims’ Commissioner

Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales, says the physical state of courts is just one factor causing hearings to be cancelled and delayed.

He describes cases where “there is no judge, no barrister, no documents, defendants not produced from prison”, adding: “Years ago we were saying the system was in crisis, but the government didn’t do anything and now it’s fallen over completely.”

A damning report issued by the National Audit Office last month said that, by 2022, the Ministry of Justice was warning internally that half of crown courtrooms were “at risk of closure at any time”.

With an estimated £1bn backlog of maintenance and repair issues, problems are expected to become critical in the coming years.

But there are more ­immediate problems. Of the 7,966 ­“ineffective” trials in 2023, the main reason was defendants and witnesses not attending – frequently because ­prisoners had not been transported from jail amid overcrowding and staff shortages.

The National Audit Office found the second-most common factor was “poor case preparation”, either by the prosecution, defence or police, followed by the “overlisting of cases”.

A factor prompting fresh alarm is the unavailability of legal professionals, which stopped more than 1,400 cases in 2023.

The government blames barristers for driving up backlogs with strikes over legal aid fees in 2022.

But the Criminal Bar Association says the shortage of lawyers would be worse if it did not force the ­government to increase pay.

For victims waiting years for ­justice, the reasons matter little. Claire Waxman, the London Victims’ Commissioner, says: “Justice is not being delivered in an effective or timely way, and sadly it is victims and families that suffer in this cruel and traumatising system.”

Waxman says “failings in each part of the system” must be addressed with investment, but no political party appears keen on making the issue core to the election campaign.

The Conservatives quietly scrapped their 2019 pledge to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system, after a tenure in government that saw crimes recorded by police hit record highs while the proportion prosecuted ­plunged to record lows.

Their new manifesto promises a “justice system that delivers for ­victims and the public”, with bolstered police powers, increased prison ­sentences and new jails, but funding is not explicitly mentioned.

Labour has pledged to “stop the Conservative chaos and return law and order to our streets” with a wide range of crime and justice policies, including fast-tracking rape cases in new specialist courts.

But, within the system, workers wonder how they could be staffed.

Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC says there is already a “lack of barristers to do the work”, after an exodus from the legal profession attributed partly to a decline in business during the pandemic and partly to poor pay and conditions.

“Everyone is doing what they can to assist the situation but still the backlog goes up, still the prisons are full, so something has to change,” he adds. “We can’t keep running at maximum.”