Sharp rise in crown court cases waiting more than a year to be dealt with

Flora Thompson and Ian Jones, PA
·3-min read

The proportion of criminal cases waiting more than a year to be dealt with by crown courts in England and Wales has “increased markedly” amid the pandemic, figures show.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), 18% of cases had been outstanding for a year or more in the three months to December last year.

This is three times as high as for the same period at the end of 2019 (6%), before the coronavirus outbreak.

Out of 55,725 cases at the end of 2020, 9,421 had been waiting one to two years to be dealt with – the highest figure in records dating to 2014.

Crown Court cases in England & Wales outstanding for at least a year
(PA Graphics)

The “outstanding duration” for cases over two years, 866, is also a record for the series.

Out of 37,374 cases for the same period in 2019, there were 1,779 waiting one to two years and 433 waiting more than two years.

The experimental analysis – published for the first time “to address interest in the outstanding case estimates at the crown court” – shows “the age of outstanding cases has increased sharply due to the Covid-19 pandemic response and the proportion of cases which have been outstanding for more than a year has increased markedly”, the MoJ report said.

The quarterly criminal court data, published on Thursday, also said the median average time it took for magistrates’ courts to deal with cases, excluding those sent to crown court, had jumped 20% from 168 days in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 202 days for the same period a year later. This is also the highest on record.

“Timeliness” measures the duration taken from an offence being committed through key stages of the criminal justice system including a charge being brought, the first listing at the magistrates’ court and subsequent completion of the case in court.

This measure fell by 7% in crown courts from 99 days to 92 for the same period.

Average time from offence to completion at magistrates’ courts in England & Wales
(PA Graphics)

The crown court backlog has risen 49% in a year to the highest level on record since 2014.

There were 56,827 outstanding crown court cases at the end of 2020, up from 38,212 for the previous period, according to the data.

A separate MoJ report with more recent, provisional data suggests the backlog has started to fall during the first part of this year.

But it also shows the latest available figure, for the week ending February 21, was slightly higher (56,875).

This week MPs warned that “huge” court backlogs are causing “unacceptably long” delays for victims and the public.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also said it has “limited confidence in the ministry’s plans for reducing the backlog in the court system”, with chairwoman Meg Hillier saying “long waits for a day in court mean justice is too often being delayed to the point of being denied”.

Earlier this month, the watchdog for the Crown Prosecution Service warned that the caseload for prosecutors is increasing at an “alarming rate” and could have “major consequences” for victims and witnesses.

Some lawyers have already said they are seeing trials being listed for 2023.

The MoJ has said more cases are being heard every week, millions of pounds have been invested to “deliver speedier justice for victims” and measures to tackle the problems are “already having an impact”.

Bar Council chairman Derek Sweeting QC said: “With an end to social distancing in sight, the Government needs to seize the opportunity to allow the courts to deal with as many cases as possible by investing in more court capacity, more court staff and adequate sitting days.”

The MoJ added: “The vast majority of trials are listed within a year and courts are prioritising ones where safety is a concern, such as domestic abuse.

“But we accept that certain cases are taking too long, which is why we are spending £450 million to deliver speedier justice, along with record sums on victim support services.”