The cap on judicial sitting days is to be lifted for the second year running to help drive down the Crown court backlog, the government announced today. However the effectiveness of the measure is in doubt following the revelation that the number of sitting days last year fell 5,000 short of what the Ministry of Justice hoped to achieve.
The ministry said that nearly 17,000 more days were sat in the Crown court in 2021/22 as a result of the cap being lifted. ‘Despite Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing measures meaning some courtrooms had to temporarily close, over 98,500 days were sat in 2021/22 after the Ministry of Justice lifted the cap, compared to around 82,000 in 2019/20,’ the department declared.
However, a National Audit Office report states that when the lord chancellor announced a year ago that he was removing the funding cap on sitting days in 2021/22, the ministry’s ‘best-case scenario’ estimated 111,500 sitting days – which was revised three months later to an ‘ambition’ scenario of 103,500.
The challenge of securing enough judges was identified by the spending watchdog as a ‘significant’ risk to the department’s long-term efforts to reduce the backlog. The ministry estimates that it will retain an extra 400 judges and tribunal members, and 2,000 magistrates per year by raising the judicial retirement age from 70 to 75.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab said today: ‘Getting the courts backlog down is a key priority for this government so that we can ensure victims get the swift access to justice they deserve. Alongside the extension of Nightingale courts, digital hearings and investing significantly in criminal legal aid, we are removing the limit on sitting days for a second year to boost capacity and help drive down the Crown court backlog of cases.’
Today's announcement mentions Raab's proposed £135m package of criminal legal aid reform – ‘which will see a typical criminal barrister earning nearly £7,000 extra per year’ – to help speed up justice for victims.
However, the criminal bar’s industrial action over the proposals threatens to derail the government's efforts to reduce the backlog. On 11 April, hundreds of criminal barristers withdrew a long-standing goodwill gesture of covering cases 'returned' by a barrister due to diary clashes. Yesterday, the BBC's home and legal correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeted that an Old Bailey murder prosecution was put back until the end of the month because no defence barristers were available.
Commenting on today's announcement, a Law Society spokesperson said: 'Restrictions on the number of days Crown courts can sit has contributed to the huge backlog of cases. Therefore, we’re pleased to know that judges will once again be able to sit an unlimited number of days through 2022-2023.
'We have repeatedly called on the UK government to maximise the existing court capacity and judicial sitting days and boost capacity through many more Nightingale courts in order to increase the amount of jury trials that can take place safely.
“The crisis in our criminal justice system has seen the backlogs in the courts spiral to unprecedented levels, leaving victims, witnesses and defendants waiting years for justice.
“We also call on the government to invest in the criminal legal aid system at least on the scale Sir Christopher Bellamy has said is urgently needed, otherwise the backlogs will continue, and it is likely that in five years’ time, we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name.'