The 57,000-strong backlog in the criminal justice system stopped growing in March as crown courts dealt with more cases than they received for the first time in over a year, new figures show.
The backlog, which was allowed to increase pre-pandemic, ballooned due to Covid-19 restrictions from around 39,000 last March to the current figure of 57,516, leaving victims, witnesses, and defendants facing significant delays.
However new government figures reveal a glimmer of positive news, as the number of crown court cases in the queue did not grow in late-February and March while there was even a slight reduction in the total.
For the first time during the pandemic - when social distancing and safety measures have drastically reduced the number of courtrooms in use – more crown court cases were finalised than entered the justice system in the week ending March 21.
The data released yesterday by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) paints a stark picture of the scale of the problems that exist within the justice system.
In the final week of figures, 181 crown court trials took place across England and Wales but almost three times that number of cases - 539 - could not take place. In contrast, pre-pandemic the balance was 207 effective trials and 292 cases that had to be vacated.
Last month, the Evening Standard revealed how the government has opened up the possibility of breaking up the traditional courtroom, with juries sitting remotely and following a trial via videolink.
The idea has been included in the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill that is currently making its way through Parliament.
A Ministry of Justice impact assessment says video technology can “give the courts more flexibility”, but the idea of virtual juries would be a radical departure from normal practice and is untested at present.
The Criminal Bar Association has instead been calling for sustained investment from government in the criminal justice system, no limits on judicial sitting days, and a raft of extra courtrooms to boost capacity.
During the pandemic, a series of ‘Nightingale’ courts have been established in vacant buildings including a cathedral and a theatre, affording courts extra space to hear more cases.
In London, ‘Nightingales’ have been set-up in a Croydon hotel as well as conference centres in Borough and Barbican, while extra space for crown court trials has been found within the Royal Courts of Justice.
Yesterday, Hendon magistrates court was formally re-opened as an annex to Wood Green crown court, able to hear three jury trials a day for at least the next year.
“The opening of this court is a towering achievement”, Mrs Justice Whipple said at the opening ceremony. “Hendon opening is really very good news indeed, a moment of bright light in what has for some months seemed a rather gloomy landscape.”