The backlog of cases in criminal courts shows few signs of abating, with the latest figures revealing there were 558,000 outstanding cases by the end of September.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service data shows that in the week ending 20 September 509,347 cases were outstanding in magistrates’ courts and 48,713 in the Crown court.
The numbers have come down in magistrates’ courts from a peak in July, reflecting the impact of extended and weekend hours and the opening of temporary so-called Nightingale courts.
But the outstanding caseload in the Crown court shows the difficulty in trying to run trials with limited court space and rising crime numbers. The number of Crown court disposals is growing, and in the week beginning 20 September was higher (1,801) than at any time since the pandemic, but these are still being outstripped by the receipts coming in, meaning the backlog has grown almost every week since March.
It is understood the Ministry of Justice has dropped any plans to cut the number of jurors on trials and is pushing ahead with ways of accommodating a full complement. But there is uncertainty about how exactly that will be achieved: the number of Nightingale courts likely to be opened is around 60, and even not until well into 2021. This is in contrast to the statements from former HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood over the summer that 200 new sites would be required to deal with the backlog. The aim of reducing the backlog to pre-Covid levels by next spring has long since disappeared, with it likely to be nearer autumn on current projections.
Law Society president Simon Davis said the latest figures bear out warnings that years of underfunding and cuts, which had already created a significant backlog in the criminal courts, have been exacerbated by Covid.
‘Justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now being listed for 2022,’ said Davis. 'The Ministry of Justice and HMCTS should ensure that it is making maximum use of normal court hours and the existing court estate, quickly take up further building space and avoid any restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available.’
The latest figures also show that other jurisdictions face an ominous workload of outstanding cases, not least in the employment tribunal where more new single claims (1,250) were received in the week beginning 20 September than in any other week since March. In the same week the tribunal disposed of fewer than half this number of cases. The backlog of outstanding cases is now at 39,836 – the highest recorded this year.