MPs were ‘unconvinced’ by the Ministry of Justice’s ‘meagre ambition’ to tackle the Crown Court case backlog and the ability of our prisons to cope with the likely increase in numbers.
According to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the backlog of cases has nearly doubled since March 2019, to 59,928 and is critical of the MoJ’s pledge to cut the number of outstanding cases by less than 8,000 by March 2025.
‘Victims of rape and serious sexual offences are facing unacceptable delays to justice,’ says PAC; adding that waiting times ‘compound and extend their suffering and lead to too many cases collapsing’.
Since March 2020, the number of Crown Court cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340%. MPs point out as waiting times increase, so does the probability that a case collapses as witnesses and victims withdraw from the process.
‘The MoJ says it will take two years to cut this backlog by less than a sixth,’ says Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said. ‘It’s just not good enough. The number of people waiting more than a year to have a serious criminal case heard has more than trebled since March 2020 from already unacceptably high levels. Government can’t keep shrugging off the question of what adding 20,000 new police officers to the mix will do.’
The number of rape and serious sexual offence cases waiting longer than a year had increased by more than 400% since the onset of the pandemic. ‘As victims are made to wait longer for their cases to be heard, their lives are put on hold and their trauma is prolonged,’ the PAC says. ‘As waiting times increase, so does the risk the victim withdraws from the process and the case collapses.’
The PAC was ‘not convinced’ that the MoJ could recruit enough judges to deliver on its ambition to reduce the Crown Court backlog. It says: ’Reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 relies on increasing the number of days that the Crown Court hears cases, from 100,000 in 2021-22 to 105,000 in 2022-23, then 106,500 in both 2023-24 and 2024-25.’ That needed ‘a significant increase’ in the number of judges for which ministry’s did ‘not seem credible’. It adds: ‘Its plans are predicated on successfully recruiting 78 full-time, salaried circuit judges. This is despite only filling 52 of 63 positions during the previous recruitment round.’
In 2019 the government announced it would recruit 20,000 additional police officers by 2023 which means an upsurge of cases and, in turn, prison sentences. ‘In July 2021, the Department reported a gap of 4,000 prison places by the end of 2023, even once it had factored in 18,000 additional places as part of its current prison build programme,’ the PAC notes. ‘It has since secured funding for 2,000 more prison places, accounting for only half of the shortfall. We are concerned that the Department’s plans allow for no contingency and resilience that might be needed if, for instance, police recruitment leads to more cases entering the courts than expected or there are delays in its prison building programme.’