Government

NAO on Crown Courts backlog

by Mark Rowe

In December 2023, the backlog of cases in Crown Courts reached its highest ever level, more than the level reached during the covid-19 pandemic. A Ministry of Justice’s ambition to reduce that backlog of 67,573 cases to 53,000 by March 2025 is no longer achievable, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

The NAO found that outstanding cases are 78 per cent higher than at the end of 2019, and 11pc higher than at the end of June 2021 when the government spending watchdog last investigated. It found that on average it takes 683 days – that is, a year and ten months – from offence to a case completing at the Crown Court, including 279 days from first listing of cases in magistrates’ courts to completion. Almost a fifth (18pc) of cases awaiting trial are sexual offences, and cases involving violence against a person are nearly a third (32pc). That mean average time increased from 486 days in the last quarter of 2019, to a high of 703 days in the second quarter of 2023.

The NAO points to consensus between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the legal profession that much of the court estate is dilapidated due to long-term under-investment, which means that courtrooms are frequently taken out of action due to, for example, leaks or heating failures. In 2022, the MoJ estimated that half of Crown Court courtrooms were at risk of closure at any time. While not affecting the rate of disposals, maintenance problems are expected to become more critical rather than less in the coming years, the NAO says.

While the MoJ has previously managed demand in Crown Courts by making policy changes to magistrates’ sentencing powers, the report states that the ‘MoJ is not
exploring further options to reduce the flow of cases from magistrates’ courts to the Crown Court’. The report notes that the backlog ‘can only have exacerbated the negative effects that waiting longer can have on victims, witnesses, and defendants. Lengthening cases can also add to the cost of administering justice’.

The MoJ told the auditors that victims may need more support as time lapses, and that it had increased its funding for victims’ support as more people are waiting longer for their cases to be heard.

As for court capacity, before 2019, the MoJ had been reducing the number of courtrooms in response to lower ‘receipts’ coming into the Crown Court. In 2020, in response to the pandemic and social-distancing, the MoJ introduced Nightingale courtrooms, ‘provided at a significantly higher cost than the £280,000 average courtroom cost per year’. The number of Nightingale courtrooms reached 72; as of March, there were still 20, and 14 due to remain open until March 2025.

For the 54-page report, visit the NAO website.

Background

In 2023, criminal courts disposed of 1.4 million cases, including more than 99,000 (less than a tenth) in the Crown Court. The NAO in its last, 2021, report on the subject found regional variations in the backlog; likewise, since June 2021, the backlog has increased in every region except London.

Photo by Mark Rowe: Nottingham.

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