The government minister in charge of courts has urged people to stop focusing so much on the backlog of cases that has increased so much in lockdown.
Lord Wolfson QC told a committee of MPs it was not ‘helpful or useful’ to make reference to the word backlog and he insisted that critics should look instead at the work that is being done.
Wolfson said the criminal courts had been operating in recent weeks at levels similar to – or even better than – before the pandemic. He acknowledged the number or outstanding cases had increased but said this should be put in the context of dealing with a pandemic and that the 39,000 pre-Covid backlog was ‘broadly in line’ with the number recorded in previous years.
He said to the justice committee: ‘It is not fair to say that before the pandemic the system was breaking or broken and the pandemic has exacerbated that. A more accurate assessment would be I think to say that there of course were issues before the pandemic, the pandemic has certainly exacerbated those issues and the real question is what do we do now looking forward.’
Accused of a lack of urgency by committee member Andy Slaughter MP, Wolfson said England and Wales was operating very well compared to similar jurisdictions, with an average of 309 jury trials listed every week in January, compared with 432 pre-Covid.
‘The urgency is certainly there,’ he added. ‘When it comes to clearing backlog I don’t think focusing on ‘backlog’ is a sensible thing to do. What one has to focus on is the throughput through the system. If for example the backlog was 20,000, we get 40,000 cases in, we dispose of 39,000 in six months that would be a fantastic achievement but the backlog would have gone up.
‘So let’s not focus on backlog, backlog when it gets very high of course is a symptom of a system which isn’t working as well as it should. Let’s work on throughput.’
The session heard evidence that average waiting time from offence to trial was now 511 days. Asked if this was appropriate, Wolfson replied: ‘If I was a victim of crime I would find 511 days a long time to wait, no doubt about it.’
Latest figures from HM Courts & Tribunals Service, covering the period up to the end of February, show the backlog in the Crown court was 56,875, with 476,932 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court.