The backlog in the Crown Court has increased a further 48% since the onset of the pandemic, according to the spending watchdog which reported that it had increased by 23% in the year before lockdown. The National Audit Office (NAO) reveals that victims, witnesses and defendants are now waiting longer for their cases to be heard as the number of cases older than a year increased exponentially from 2,830 to 11,379 (302%).
The Lord Chief Justice suspended jury trials in lockdown between 23 March and 18 May last year. Between March last year and June this year, the Crown Court backlog increased from 41,045 to 60,692 cases.
‘Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years,’ said Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO. ‘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 MoJ and Court Service had ‘a poor understanding of the impact the pandemic and recovery programme have had on court service users from ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups’, the watchdog said. The NAO found there had been ‘slow progress’ in evaluating how vulnerable users had been affected by, for example, remote access to justice. There was also ‘no evidence’ that the MoJ had any data on users’ ethnicity
Cases in the backlog in June had been waiting an average of 230 days, 84 days (57%) longer than cases in the backlog at the start of lockdown. ‘Delays could mean more victims and witnesses withdraw from the process, increasing the likelihood of cases collapsing,’ says NAO. ‘In September 2020, the government temporarily extended the maximum time limit a defendant could be held before trial by 56 days. Between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, the number of people held on remand in custody increased by 27% at a time when the prison population declined by 6%.’
The watchdog reveals how the pandemic exacerbated the regional variation in backlogs and waiting times. The Crown Court backlog increased the most in London, by a further 72%, compared with only 18% in the South West. The average age of a case in London increased by 63% to 266 days throughout the pandemic, more than any other region.
Rape and serious sexual offence cases have been ‘acutely affected’, according to the NAO. Between March 2020 and June 2021, the number of sexual offence trial cases in the Crown Court backlog rose by 71% from 3,606 to 6,173, with cases waiting longer than a year increasing 435% from 246 to 1,316.