The Ministry of Justice should focus on ‘the time taken for cases to reach disposal’ rather than the headline figure of the criminal courts backlog, the Bar Council has told MPs.
The public accounts committee is considering the backlog of criminal cases, which currently stands at around 60,000 with the aim to reduce it to 53,000 by March 2025.
In written evidence published this week, the Bar Council told the committee: ‘The criminal justice system of England and Wales is at tipping point. Many challenges have existed across the system for years and have only been worsened by the pandemic. Tackling the mounting backlog remains a key priority for the prime minister, yet it remains the case that too many victims are unable to achieve justice quickly or effectively.’
The representative body said the ‘severe delays, insurmountable backlogs, crumbling buildings and chronic underfunding’ are having a detrimental impact on victims, witnesses and defendants, which is ‘avoidable and unacceptable’.
It added that the current backlog is not just at a high level, but it is also ‘comprised of a disproportionate number of complex and potentially lengthy cases that will require a trial’.
While additional funding for the criminal justice system is ‘a step in the right direction’, the Bar Council said that ‘without further support and sufficient investment, the court reform project will fail in its objectives and the backlog will continue to rise’.
It also said that ‘it is unhelpful to consider the matter solely in terms of “the backlog”’, suggesting that the MoJ – and the committee – should focus on how long it takes for cases to be completed.
‘This is more likely to be a metric which accurately measures the extent to which progress is being made,’ the Bar Council said. ‘It also has the advantage that it is more clearly focussed on the impact of delays on court users.’
The council said that ‘the historic backlogs in the Crown courts are not directly comparable to the figures seen today because of the disproportionate number of cases which will require a trial’.
It warned of ‘a risk of the creation of perverse incentives, for example to fast-track simpler cases in order to fulfil the metric’, if the focus was solely on reducing the number of cases.