The criminal bar has attacked the government’s claim that 90% of court buildings have reopened, as the number of trials being removed from the calendar remains persistently high.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said ‘very many Crown court rooms are simply not sitting for any criminal hearing at all’ and ‘until the end of last week, the biggest new criminal Court building, Prospero House in London, was being paid to sit one third idle’.
According to data released by the Ministry of Justice, 1,947 Crown trials were vacated between 5 July and the end of the month, compared with 2,076 in the first four weeks after jury trials were suspended entirely because of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the number of trials vacated in one week peaked in March at 693. However, from 5 July to the end of the month the number of abandoned trials has remained high, averaging around 487 a week.
The number of outstanding Crown court cases stood at 43,676 on 26 July. The entire backlog across the magistrates and Crown courts now amounts to more than 560,000.
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the CBA, said: ‘Faced with this multiple pile-up of a growing Crown court trials backlog the government has the audacity to repeat at best a highly misleading mantra, at worst an insult, that for the past few weeks 90% of Court buildings are open when the reality for court users is that two thirds of the court rooms in the existing Crown court buildings remain unused.’
She added: ‘The great promise of dozens of extra “Nightingale” courts has yet to be delivered with just three of the 10 Nightingale buildings devoted to criminal hearings and until the end of last week, the biggest new criminal Court building, Prospero House in London, was being paid to sit one third idle with only two of the three court rooms sitting at all...We need in addition at least another 50 Nightingale criminal court rooms.’
Earlier this month a spokesman for HM Courts & Tribunals Service said that 90% of court buildings are open, remote hearings have increased, urgent cases are being prioritised and millions of pounds is being invested in buildings and technology to ’keep justice going’.
President of the Law Society Simon Davis said: ‘After years of underfunding and cuts, there were already significant backlogs of cases in the criminal justice system. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – before the pandemic, the backlog stood at over 446,000 cases and this has risen to more than 560,000 at the end of July.
‘We believe the government can build court capacity – without resorting to extended hours – by utilising unused public buildings as Nightingale courts, making maximum use of normal court hours and the existing court estate, and avoiding any restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available.
‘Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation will ensure judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.’