The backlog of Crown court cases in England and Wales has reached its highest level in two years as lawyers fear coronavirus will be a ‘car crash’ for the criminal justice system.
According to figures for October-December 2019, the number of outstanding Crown court cases increased by 13% year-on-year, from 33,113 in 2018 to 37,434. This has caused the biggest backlog of criminal cases since 2017.
The final quarter of 2019 saw the volume of cases received by Crown courts grow by 10% compared with Q4 2018, while disposals fell by 8%. Since the start of 2019, receipts have consistently overtaken disposals for the first time since 2014.
The Ministry of Justice said there had been an annual increase in receipts for trial cases across all but one offence group (robbery). Sexual offence and drug offence receipts rose by 20% and 26% respectively compared with Q4 2018. Conversely, there has been an annual decrease in trial case disposals across the majority of offence groups, with the largest absolute falls seen in violence against the person and sexual offences.
The backlog is feared to have worsened significantly in the past few weeks because of enforced court closures caused by coronavirus.
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said: ‘The Crown court sitting days budget cuts imposed on the financial year 2019/20 just ending has proven to be a shambolic miscalculation and now we have a car-crash of an extra backlog building up from the COVID19 enforced courts closure to deal with.
‘The criminal justice system can no longer be so shamefully and abusively cut back to the brink of collapse. The CBA will be holding the secretary of state for justice to his commitment made to Parliament this week to fully reopen the courts once the pandemic is safely over.’
The Ministry of Justice said coronavirus could disrupt its ability to publish quarterly court statistics. ‘In some cases, the production of some data series may need to be suspended. Alternatively, we may find there are advantages to using other data sources,’ it said.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.