The justice system is showing ‘good signs of recovery’ after ‘record investment’ in court and tribunal buildings, the government has told the House of Commons justice select committee. However, the criminal bar has denounced the swelling backlog of cases, demanding that more court buildings are opened up.
Responding to a Justice Committee report on the impact of coronavirus on the legal profession, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC said £153m has been invested to improve courts and tribunal buildings, including £80m on emergency measures to tackle to impact of Covid-19.
‘As one of the first among other comparable jurisdictions globally to resume jury trials, we are pleased that there have been good signs of recovery in our courts. As of 14 September 2020, we are handling over 100 jury trials Crown courts – clearing over 1,700 cases each week - and magistrates are beginning to dispose of more cases than are coming in,’ he said.
‘Magistrates’ courts are now dealing with most business type hearings. Since August magistrates’ courts have been completing more cases than have been received and the number of sittings are almost at pre-covid levels.’
Buckland added that protective screens in over 300 courtrooms have enabled HM Courts & Tribunals Service to open 250 Crown court rooms for jury trials.
However, the Criminal Bar Association called the latest figures ‘very troubling’, saying in the week ending 20 September there were only 96 effective trials, while 457 were vacated.
James Mulholland QC, chair of the CBA, said that the number of outstanding trials was already ‘out of control pre-Covid’ at 17,400 as of 1 March. ‘It stood at more than 31,000 as of 20 September, a leap of 78% in just six months. Bearing in mind the number of trials being vacated on a weekly basis, it will be edging up towards 33,000 by the end of October.'
'The only way for the criminal court estate to cope with the current volume of custody trials, let alone those on bail, is to open more court buildings, open them fast and keep them open long term as part of a structured and sustainable recovery plan,' he said.