Coronavirus has had a ‘devastating’ impact on courts and the effect of virtual hearings is still ‘fundamentally unclear’, an influential Lords committee has found.
In a comprehensive report published today, the House of Lords constitution committee said the backlog in the criminal courts has reached ‘crisis levels’ and the quality of justice is ‘increasingly at risk’ as witness memories fade over time.
It urged the government to provide enough funding to ensure that all cases in the Crown court are tried within one year of the plea and trial preparation hearing. It also backed plans to pilot remote jury trials as a further means of reducing the backlog.
On technology, the committee said a ‘paucity of data collection’ is undermining transparency and making it difficult to assess the impact of remote hearings on vulnerable court users, including whether technology is affecting case outcomes.
‘The impact of virtual hearings across the justice system remains fundamentally unclear in a number of respects, as insufficient data is being collected and analysed by HM Courts & Tribunals Service,’ it said. ‘Remote hearings are not appropriate in all cases or for all types of court users. Reduced face to face contact risks alienating litigants, as it can be difficult to conduct remote hearings with an appropriate level of empathy and humanity in sensitive cases.’
The constitution committee recommended that the government set out a revised timetable within three months for completing the HMCTS reform programme, following ‘repeated delays’. It also asked for more information on Nightingale courts, claiming it is currently ‘difficult to assess whether these additional courtrooms are being effectively utilised’.
The committee concluded that the backlog in the criminal courts is ‘neither acceptable nor inevitable’ and instead results from ‘years of underinvestment’. Latest figures from HMCTS, covering the period up to the end of February, show a Crown court backlog of 56,875 cases, with 476,932 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said: ‘The criminal court backlogs mean that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now listed for 2023.
‘The report rightly identifies the key part that access to legal advice, at the earliest possible stage, plays in keeping the courts running as efficiently as possible, and thus helping tackle the backlogs. We welcome the call for the government to increase further funds available for legal aid to match the reality of the need.’
The committee’s report is the first of three looking at the constitutional implications of the pandemic.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'The committee rightly recognises the huge efforts of courts staff and professionals to keep the justice system moving in the face of a global pandemic - scores of Nightingale courtrooms have been opened to boost capacity and remote hearings have increased by 4,000%. As a result of this hard work, the number of outstanding magistrates’ cases has fallen by 50,000 since last summer and more jury trials are being heard every week.
'Major challenges remain which is why the government is spending £450m to deliver speedier justice and drive this recovery further.'