Court system buckling under backlog of cases
Some trials won't happen until 2022
24 December, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby
Blackfriars Crown Court was closed in a series of cuts [Nigel Cox]
THE courts system is buckling under a backlog of cases, lawyers have warned, with some victims of serious crimes facing agonising waits of up to four years for justice.
A mountain of outstanding cases waiting to be heard in Crown Courts across the country has almost reached the 50,000 figure amid the Covid crisis, and is going up rather than down.
Some trials are having to be pushed back until the end of 2022, and there was alarm this week over how public faith in the criminal justice system could be at risk.
Speaking to the New Journal, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), Mark Troman, said: “This is what collapse looks like. It’s not always in your face, it’s slow. And the justice system at the moment is like a building that’s collapsing in many parts.
“People should be concerned because this doesn’t just affect people going through the courts now, it impacts everyone in society.”
He added: “If they hear that 50 per cent of arrests do not lead to someone getting charged, and only around 5 per cent of complaints lead to a prosecution, while police don’t bother sending forensics [officers] out to crimes such as burglaries, then people will give up calling the police. This could lead to rampant criminality.”
One of the main concerns, Mr Troman said, was that the added stress of a long wait for a trial could lead to a number of victims and witnesses dropping out of the process.
London’s victims commissioner, Claire Waxman, said the problems might deny victims “the justice they deserve, and risk seeing even lower prosecution rates for rape cases and rapists will go free”.
Innocent defendants – some of whom are held in custody until their trial – will have to wait years for the chance to clear their name.
Examples of the impact such a backlog is having were sent in by members of the LCCSA in a recent survey.
One teenage victim of a sexual crime which allegedly took place in 2018 is having to wait four years for a trial now set for 2022.
And a key worker who was racially abused has been told to expect a two-and-a-half-year wait for the case to reach trial in court. During its own reporting in the courts, the New Journal has witnessed hearings continuously adjourned, with defendants on remand in understaffed prisons waiting months for trial.
In one hearing last month, a defence barrister apologised to the defendant for not even knowing how he wished to plead, and called the system “a shambles”.
Cuts made to the Ministry of Justice by the government since 2010, including to the police and prosecution service, have been blamed for creating the crisis which was then exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several courts, including Blackfriars Crown Court, where most of Camden’s more serious cases would have been heard, have been closed, while the number of days judges are paid to sit has been reduced.
Jonathan Black, a solicitor at BNB Solicitors, said: “The government has reaped this problem with what they did before the virus. Covid has just compounded it. Delayed hearings are just the thin end of the wedge, though.
“Defendants are innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to a fair, speedy trial, but the system as it currently stands means all sorts of human rights are being violated.”
Tony Meisel, a partner at Lewis Nedas Law in Camden, said: “The whole system is falling apart. We are constantly worried about our clients, some of which are very vulnerable. Those on remand are being locked up for 23 hours a day.
“Locked up or not, the toll delays like this take on all involved is incredible. You can’t forget because your court date is hanging over you, people’s lives are put on hold, jobs are lost, relationships fall apart.”
Jury trials, which were paused in March, have since resumed and temporary “Nightingale courts” are being opened to ease the pressure on the system.
Extended court opening hours are being trialled, and moves are being made to pre-record testimony and cross-examination and play them to juries at a later date. The government said it is investing record amounts of money in the sector.
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson said: “The magistrates’ backlog continues to fall and the number of cases resolved in the Crown Courts has trebled since April. To drive this recovery further we are investing £110m in a range of measures to boost capacity, including recruiting 1,600 new staff and shortly opening several more Nightingale courts.
“These efforts will be bolstered by an extra £337m the government is spending next year to deliver swifter justice and support victims, while £76m will further increase capacity in family courts and tribunals.”
The MoJ said the UK was one of the first countries to resume jury trials, and have installed plexiglass screens into over 400 courtrooms.