Government target to cut crown court backlogs ‘no longer achievable’ – report

The Government’s target of cutting the crown court backlog is “no longer achievable”, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said the Ministry of Justice aim to reduce the outstanding caseload to 53,000 by March 2025 was not likely to be reached.

More than a quarter of cases are waiting for a year or more to be heard, “prolonging the distress to victims” waiting for justice, according to the findings.

And there have been reports of some trials due to take place this week being adjourned until 2026.

Overcrowding in prisons is now “one of the biggest obstacles” to cutting the backlog and the MoJ is unable to say how much money it has spent on efforts to reduce the waiting list of cases, the NAO said.

The department set the target during a spending review in October 2021 after being given £477 million to “support recovery across the criminal justice system”, including reducing caseloads. But the backlog is now higher than it was then and the MoJ estimates it will be closer to 64,000 by March 2025.

There were 67,492 outstanding crown court cases as of March this year, compared to 60,191 in March last year, provisional MoJ figures published earlier this month suggested.

The condition of the crown court buildings could also become a “barrier” to reducing the backlog because they are not fit for purpose due to long-term under-investment.

Courtrooms are frequently taken out of action due to problems like leaks or heating failures. In 2022, the MoJ estimated that 50% of crown court courtrooms were at risk of sudden closure at any time, according to the findings.

The justice system has been the subject of increasingly febrile political debate in recent years and this may ramp up during the General Election campaign.

The Government is yet to honour its 2019 manifesto pledge of carrying out a root-and-branch review of the criminal justice system.

The royal commission pledged to carry out a “fundamental review” in a bid to improve “efficiency and effectiveness”.

Even though it would have been the first inquiry of its kind launched since 1991, the scope and duration of the probe, as well as the names of the figures who would lead it, were never set out by the MoJ.

Tana Adkin KC, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the NAO report “confirms” what lawyers have known for years, “that the criminal justice system remains in crisis without a plan for sustained investment, despite the repeated warnings of prosecutors and defence advocates who are tasked with delivering justice daily in our publicly funded courts”.

Sam Townend KC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the report highlights how the criminal justice system is “at the point of structural failure”.

“If the court backlog is to be tackled and the public are to regain confidence in the system there needs to be sufficient workforce to meet the demands. The next government needs to step up to the plate. It would cost the public purse peanuts in the scale of overall government spending to ensure every case has a barrister on each side. This investment would save considerably more than is spent because there would be far fewer ineffective trials,” he said.

The Law Society of England and Wales, which represents solicitors, reiterated calls for “urgent” improvements to be made in light of the findings.

The body’s president Nick Emmerson said: “The UK government’s short sighted approach to justice including more than a decade of underfunding of our criminal justice system, has resulted in a chronic shortage of judges and lawyers, huge backlogs, crumbling courts and prison spaces running out.

“Urgent action is needed, including sustained investment across the criminal justice system, to ensure timely justice for all. If the Government had listened to our warnings sooner, it would not have found itself in the critical state we now see with emergency measures being taken to deal with the crisis over prison spaces.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said crown courts sat for more than 107,000 days last year – “more days than at any point in the last seven years”.

The Government is also “investing more in the system, rolling out remote hearings, extending the use of Nightingale courts and recruiting hundreds of judges to get victims the justice they deserve and put more offenders behind bars” as well as “pushing ahead with the largest prison expansion programme in 100 years – with 10,000 of the 20,000 additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025”, he added.