A decision not to step up efforts to cut the backlog of criminal cases was 'political', the senior presiding judge has said as 40% of Crown courtrooms are reported to be sitting idle. Lady Justice Macur said 'time will tell' whether government analysts have correctly estimated the number of sitting days required to maintain the current backlog of outstanding criminal cases.

The senior presiding judge was responding to a letter from Bar Council chair Richard Atkins QC, who raised concerns in July about Crown court sitting days, trial delays and recorder numbers.

In her response, dated 27 August, Macur LJ confirmed that Crown court sitting day allocations have fallen from 97,400 in 2018/19 to 82,300 in 2019/20. 

She said: 'This figure was calculated by MoJ analysts as that necessary to maintain the number of outstanding criminal cases in the backlog at the same level and considering significantly reduced Crown court receipts over the previous 12 months, and before that. The decision not to further reduce the backlog was a political decision.

'It was recognised that this reduction would mean that some courtrooms would not be utilised, and the salaried judiciary would not all be able to sit in crime to the same extent as previously. However, salaried circuit judges will not be staying at home or being paid for "doing nothing" as suggested in your letter.'

Macur LJ said 'time will tell whether the MoJ analysts' assumption as to the number of sitting days required to hold the backlog is accurate', and assured Atkins that she is involved in a 'robust' quarterly review of statistics with HM Courts & Tribunals Service.

On Friday the judiciary announced the appointment of 159 recorders; 25 will sit in civil, 30 in crime and 104 in family.

Macur LJ said: 'Regrettably, the reduced Crown court sitting day allocation necessarily resulted in a late but inevitable downward revision of the number of "criminal" recorders sought in the 2019 competition. However, the numbers of vacancies in other jurisdictions were increased, and meritorious candidates were offered appointment with a view to sitting in the criminal jurisdiction when circumstances change.'

The latest figures emerged as criminal barrister Jonathan Dunne, of KCH Garden Square in Leicester, published another snapshot of idle courts.

His first snapshot showed that 127 out of 260 available courtrooms in Crown courts that would normally hear criminal cases were sitting idle on one Monday last month. His second snapshot showed that, on 6 September, 56 out of 139 available courtrooms were sitting empty.

Dunne said the latest picture was a sample size of just over a quarter of the court estate. But he said: 'August, at 50%, was shocking. Here we are in September, judges and lawyers back from holidays, and yet 40% of courts on a random sample left unused. Victims and witnesses betrayed. Those accused, left in limbo.'

The Criminal Bar Association also conducted a snapshot of Crown courts not sitting, which includes six out of 18 at the Old Bailey and five out of 10 at Cardiff.