The lord chancellor has said the long wait to hear trials is not as bad as some lawyers claim it is – while telling MPs that cases are being listed into 2022.
Giving evidence to the Commons justice select committee yesterday, Robert Buckland MP said he hoped the courts will be able to ‘turn a corner’ in getting more trials heard next year after chancellor Rishi Sunak last week pledged to increase justice spending to tackle the increasing backlog.
Buckland mentioned the High Court’s ‘noteworthy decision’ last week about custody time limits. In a witness statement, HM Courts & Tribunals Service official Gemma Hewison said modelling carried out by HMCTS suggests the outstanding jury trial caseload may fall to pre-Covid levels by March 2023.
Buckland told the committee: ‘That is a pre-Covid figure of 39,000 or so Crown court cases. The truth is it’s a moving picture. 39,000 or so Crown court cases is not a historically high figure. In 2014 there were 55,000 cases in the system. We’re now in a position where there are just over 50,000 cases. It may well be because of increased throughputs, increased charges and more cases coming in, we won’t be getting back to a figure of 39,000 anytime soon nor should we be. The most important figure for me is not the overall headline - it’s the proportion of trials within that number.’
Buckland said 80% of remand cases have been listed between now and March 2021. On overall listing of cases, for cases listed in September 2020, 95% were going to be heard by the end of 2021.
‘And whilst it is right that there are cases now being listed into 2022, there has been a lot of talk about listing of cases into 2023 which is just not right,’ he added.
Buckland accepted that there was an ‘increasing risk’ that listings could go into 2023 ‘if we carry on without getting the investment we have secured to help deal with the backlog’. However, with the new investment, ‘listings officers can look again at their lists to see whether they can draw in some of those trial listing dates to an earlier stage’.
He added: ‘Whilst I don’t pretend this is anything but a very big task, I am somewhat more confident now than I was that we can start to see a difference being made within the next year in terms of those cases. I’ve described it as “turning a corner”. I do very much hope and believe we can now start to do that in the year ahead and see the proportion of trials being reduced, particularly as we use the new in-year money we had from the Treasury to scale up facilities for multi-handed cases that are particularly difficult to list because of social distancing’.
Buckland said listing is currently based on the assumption that social distancing will continue until June.